With just five games to go in the regular season and the SEC Tournament scheduled to begin three weeks from today, attention is now shifting toward what actually matters in the college basketball world: March.
After nearly four months of action, we’ve now gotten a firm grasp on the top teams in the nation, and as proven by their top-ten ranking, Kentucky is one of them.
Now, though, it’s time to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask a simple question: “Can this Kentucky basketball team win the national title this year?”
After diving into the numbers a bit, here are five reasons why Kentucky fans have reason to feel optimistic as we look ahead to March Madness.
Nick Richards is a legitimate SEC Player of the Year candidate
Over the last two seasons, Kentucky center Nick Richards provided very little in his time on the floor, leading to a massive reduction in minutes to close out his freshman and sophomore campaigns.
Following his 25-point, 15-rebound double-double against Purdue Fort Wayne back in 2017, Richards broke the double-digit point barrier in just seven games out of a possible 68 through the 2018-19 season. He managed more than ten minutes just once in the final ten games of the 2017-18 season before finishing with ten minutes or less in 17 games in 2018-19, including a total of five minutes in Kentucky’s final two NCAA Tournament games against Houston in the Sweet 16 and Auburn in the Elite Eight.
He simply wasn’t playable.
Fast forward to his junior campaign, and Richards has become arguably Kentucky’s most valuable player, averaging 14.5 points on an SEC-leading 66% shooting, 8.1 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per contest. As a result, the 7-foot center out of Kingston, Jamaica is being discussed as a serious SEC Player of the Year candidate.
On both ends of the floor, Richards is a threat to make game-changing plays at any given moment, with multiple opposing coaches telling reporters after Kentucky games that the Wildcat big man is among the best centers in all of college basketball. Ole Miss’ Kermit Davis said he’d argue Richards is the best just four days ago.
To emphasize his importance on the roster, outside of Kentucky’s season-opener against Michigan State where Richards was recovering from an ankle injury, the team has lost every time the star big man has finished in single digits this season. Four healthy games in single digits, four losses against Evansville, Utah, Ohio State, and Auburn. The only time Kentucky has lost this season with Richards finishing in double figures was on the road at South Carolina, a game the Wildcats lost on a half-court heave at the buzzer.
With the ball going through Richards’ hands and the junior big man managing at least ten points, Kentucky simply finds ways to win. That’s going to pay off in March.
… and so is Immanuel Quickley
The level of success you expect out of Richards on a nightly basis? You can say the exact same thing out of sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley.
Quickley has finished in double figures in 15 consecutive games, including 17 or more points in 10 of his last 15 games. Consistency.
Whether it be knocking down a few clutch shots from deep, earning opportunities at the line and effortlessly sinking them, or nailing a floater from inside the lane to give Kentucky a much-needed bucket, Quickley has become the team’s go-to scorer at all three levels.
Now, the Cats have two players you are absolutely certain will produce at a high level every time they step on the floor in Quickley and Richards, similar to the consistency we saw out of PJ Washington and Tyler Herro last season.
In terms of scoring, you can rely on the sophomore guard unlike anyone else on the roster. With Quickley, we have come to expect roughly 17-plus points, a minimum of one three-pointer (usually more), and anywhere from five to ten attempts from the free throw line.
And with Richards, you can count on him to put up a regular stat line of roughly 15 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks each night.
Those two “guarantees” are crucial for the Wildcats and rely on just one or two other players to step up and put up impressive numbers on any given night.
Elite free throw shooting
As a team, UK is shooting 78.8% from the line, good for No. 5 in all of college basketball and No. 1 amongst Power Five programs. Take out Kahlil Whitney – Kentucky’s worst free throw shooter on the year at 43.5% – and the Wildcats are shooting a ridiculous 80% from the line on the year, good for No. 1 in the nation.
Individually, UK has four players shooting over 81% from the line, with Immanuel Quickley – who leads the team in attempts at 136 – leading the way at 91.2% overall. Only two rotation players – EJ Montgomery and Keion Brooks Jr. – are shooting less than 70% from the line.
On the year, Kentucky has only had seven games where the team finished less than 70% from the free throw line. On the flip side, the Wildcats have had 13 games where they finished shooting over 80% from the line, including four of 89% or higher.
Taking a look back at Kentucky’s losses in the NCAA Tournament during the Calipari era, the Wildcats have shot greater than 79% from the line in elimination games just once (Wisconsin, 2015) and over 65% just twice. In the last three years alone, UK has been knocked out of the tournament after shooting 63.2% or less in each matchup.
- 12-21 (57.1%) against Auburn in 2019
- 23-37 (62.2%) against Kansas State in 2018 (including 8-20 from PJ Washington)
- 12-19 (63.2%) against North Carolina in 2017
- 15-19 (78.9%) against Indiana in 2016
- 9-10 (90%) against Wisconsin in 2015
- 13-24 (54.2%) against Connecticut in 2014
- 4-12 (33.3%) against Connecticut in 2011
- 16-29 (55.2%) against West Virginia in 2010
When the team has needed easy points, Kentucky has been able to find them at the free throw line. That in itself should give fans reason for optimism as postseason play approaches.
“Will to win”
After Kentucky’s win over LSU on Tuesday evening, head coach John Calipari was asked what he likes most about this roster in the home stretch of the season.
“They’ve got a will to win,” he said. “That means you’ve [always] got a chance.”
As frustrating as it has been to consistently ask why this team can’t turn ten-point leads into blowouts, one common theme to keep in mind is that this team is still finding ways to win. The Wildcats have won 13 of their last 15 games, including nine of their last ten.
In its two overtime appearances against ranked foes Louisville and Texas Tech, Kentucky found a way to come out on top. On the road at Vanderbilt, the Wildcats found themselves down 14 points in the first half, only to end up winning by 14. They’ve also come away with other crucial SEC road victories against the likes of LSU, Tennesseee, Arkansas, and Georgia in hostile environments. You go down the list of games and the deficits Kentucky has found itself in, they’ve been able to rally to victory more often than not.
Even in each of the team’s losses against Evansville, Utah, Ohio State, South Carolina, and Auburn, Kentucky has even had a chance to win or push for overtime in the game’s final minute on all five occasions. Their largest margin of defeat came in a nine-point loss at Auburn, a game they led with just over four minutes to go and had down to four points with just 1:16 remaining.
The Wildcats had some bad losses to start the year, but right now, the team is finding their stride and grinding out victories when it matters most.
After all, the NCAA Tournament is all about “surviving and advancing” for a reason.
Three elite guards
Last season, Virginia had a backcourt trio of Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, and Ty Jerome averaging a combined 44.2 points per contest.
The year before, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Donte DiVincenzo combined for 50 a game at Villanova. And in their title run in 2015-16, Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins, and Ryan Arcidiacono averaged 41.6 points as a trio, with a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman Brunson also putting up nearly ten points per contest on his own.
You go down the list of past NCAA champions, and elite guard play has been a common theme more often than not.
This year, Kentucky’s trio of Immanuel Quickley, Tyrese Maxey, and Ashton Hagans are combining for 41.1 points per contest. Factor in Quickley’s consistency, Maxey’s ability to go off for 20-plus on any given night, and Hagans proving at various points throughout the year that, at his best, he can play like the nation’s best point guard, Kentucky has plenty of reason for optimism going into postseason play.