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Five reasons why Kentucky has a shot to win it all this year

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.

Article written by Jack Pilgrim

Follow me on Twitter: @JackPilgrimKSR

49 Comments for Five reasons why Kentucky has a shot to win it all this year

  1. 2Dogs
    5:33 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    I’ll give a more general answer. Cal. Since he’s been here there’s only been one year we didn’t have a chance, a very legitimate chance, to cut down the nets. It obviously hasn’t happened every year but we’ve had a real shot and personally that’s all I ask. Few teams can say that.

    • zoupman
      10:44 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      I agree. Our biggest strength is Coach always has the team ready.

  2. CrystalBall
    5:39 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    Only one Freshman starter.

  3. CrystalBall
    5:42 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    Would like to know free throw percentage in final 4 minutes. This is a very important stat.

    • memphis wildcat
      11:02 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      I think during the ole miss game I saw a stat that said UKs FT % went up to 85% in the last 3 or 4 mins of games that were close.

    • CrystalBall
      11:54 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      Thanks, memphis wildcat.

  4. steeleheart
    6:09 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    I’ll add another, the field is wide open. This is said almost yearly, but this might be the most wide-open field in quite some time. Literally, anyone can win. Why not us?

    I don’t trust this team though. I want to; I’ll continue to cheer but we could fall in sweet 16 or march all the way. Wouldn’t surprise me either way.

    • syrin23
      7:20 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      A month ago, I would have agreed with this statement. But, Baylor is rolling people, and I watched them. They are legit. Good interior players, good guards, tough D, tough minded mentality, doesn’t hurt itself like Sestina tried to do in the last few minutes last night. UK would have to play its best game of the year, and Baylor its worse in order for us to win.

    • 4everUKBlue
      9:03 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      Baylor is legit, but there have been plenty legit teams get knocked off early, just ask K. He had the team of the century with the greatest college player in the history of the sport….according to ZSPN and look how that turned out.

    • catsby.5
      9:05 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      A lot of people say that Cal wins a lot of games but can’t win when it matters most in the tournament (I am not one of them), but I can definitively say that Scott Drew falls apart like a $39 suit come March. Now, this year could be the exception, but until he proves otherwise I don’t expect Baylor to even make the Final 4 and I believe Kentucky beats them more often than not on a neutral floor. I’ve watched Baylor play multiple times as well, and although I agree they’re about as safe a bet to win it all as anyone in the country, I don’t see them cutting down the nets. Keep in mind the Big 12 isn’t great this year, and 2 of the top 4 teams (TT and WV) are terrible on the road. Baylor is very good, but the way their schedule has unfolded has helped them out a lot. Not to mention they haven’t come in with the buzz most elite teams do in a road atmosphere until the last couple weeks. Just sayin…..

    • CrystalBall
      10:50 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      Agree with you, catsby.5.

    • syrin23
      12:39 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      I don’t know much about the Big Twelve aside from the top few teams. I certainly hope you’re right. Honestly, we can beat ANYONE if we play all forty minutes, something we have yet to do this year. We were horrible in the first half yesterday, only hitting four FG’s the entire half yet took a one point lead into the locker room at the half. That means our D is getting really good. We cannot meltdown in the last five minutes like we did. Granted, Hagans going out was a big problem, but man oh man, we got to get more consistent. I agree with Drew on one key point. Our FT shooting will carry us through close games that used to be close losses.

  5. VirginiaCat
    6:18 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    I really like this squad’s composure under pressure, their will to win, and their work ethic. The keys will be staying out of foul trouble and getting a decent tournament draw. Our guard play and FT shooting could take us deep into the tournament. Add some fortuitous upsets along the way and #9 is possible.

  6. Racerr11
    7:05 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    Where capable of beating any team, won’t need upsets. If we continue shooting fts they way we have and no one gets hurt we have a great chance. Plus we have the best coach in the country. Agree the field is wise open.

  7. michaelb
    7:12 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    These guys really like & respect each other too…. it’s noticeable . Not always are the guys buddy buddy . This helps tremendously

  8. mashburnfan1
    7:16 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    Lol. No SEC team has a title shot. As well no Big 10 and no PAC 12 team has a shot either. What are we basing this title chance on? The fact we struggle to beat teams that won’t even be in the tourney. Ok we beat LSU who will be a 7-9 seed but they have beat nobody and lost at home to ETSU, So Cal and Utah St. We lost in ot to Auburn who has also beat nobody, please folks look at their embarrassing schedules. We have not shown we can beat 6 straight bad teams but one time (we did win 6 straight once this season but all vs non tourney teams). We just had to shoot 74 percent in a half to beat an average team by 3. No team will win a title giving up offensive rebounds at the rate we do. One big difference in our favor is we don’t rely on FR so that is a plus but only one of our FR is giving us much of anything. We finally got the veteran leadership but the FR are not as advertised to help. Guess Cal did not want to develop this group of FR since most here think he makes these guys pros in one year. We have had the easiest paths possible the last few years and lost to bad teams, why does anyone think this will be any different.

    • 4everUKBlue
      11:29 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      Well thank goodness the basketball god and expert showed up to set everyone straight. BTW mashbum did you notice you idol K got his @ss handed to him by an unranked team? How embarrassing is that? Luckily for K he has you to make excuses for him.

    • 4everUKBlue
      11:36 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      Wait, I forgot mashbum can predict the future.

  9. Rob
    8:15 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    Depends on which Kentucky team shows up.

  10. Thetruthshallsetbennyfree
    8:25 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    Roacha$$1 just headbutted a fish tank full of acid.

  11. spincr4hire
    8:58 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    If we can stay away from certain refs we certainly have a shot at a final 4. After that those said refs will probably be officiating our games

  12. mashburnfan1
    9:22 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    No team from the big 12, SEC, or pac 12 has a title shot as all those conferences are terrible. Look at the SEC with Auburn and LSU in second and third place but they have beaten absolutely zero good teams, look at their schedule. Auburn does this every year yet gets rewarded in the tournament, they should be a 10 seed with their schedule. We had to shoot 74% in a half to beat an average team by three. This team Gives up way too many offensive rebounds to win a title. We struggle to beat bad teams, teams that won’t even be near the tournament. This team just like the past few years has zero chance at a title. Even with the easiest path possible the last couple years we get beat by a terrible team.

    • GM1978
      10:18 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      I haven’t seen Kentucky lose to a “terrible” team in the tourney under Cal—-not even close

      And curious as to why all the team bashing????

      LSU is a very solid team—-was a quality road win last night

    • 4everUKBlue
      11:31 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      It’s all about his hatred for Cal, nothing else matters to mashbum, he even makes excuses for our opponents when we beat them.

    • syrin23
      12:44 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Dude, the Kansas State loss was AWFUL! Be honest.

    • syrin23
      12:47 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      I just don’t get it. Mash has very valid points. No one ever argues with what he says, they just hate the messenger. You may disagree with his conclusion, and have a much more optimistic view of our chances, but he’s factually correct. I think only a handful of teams are as upset proof as can be given the parity this year. That means we could get some nice breaks that leave us an easier path.

    • 4everUKBlue
      1:01 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      It was bad and it was lost at the free throw line, there was nothing wrong with the game plan, we would’ve won that game if we shot the percentage of free throws we are this year. And no mashbum is not factually correct, what he does is picks and chooses bits and pieces of half truths to meet his agenda. I’ve called him out numerous time when asked me what he’s lied about but he never came back to respond. He’s a total fraud.

    • 4everUKBlue
      1:14 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      And several have set him straight, BP who is a chick owns his ass, but again he never comes back when he’s been exposed, Clutch Cargo has set him straight too, but mash is the type that drops a load of bullshit then never comes back.

    • StillBP
      7:09 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Syrin he uses some facts but he also uses a lot of opinions, so he’s not factually correct. How is saying so SEC team has a chance factually correct? It just isn’t, it’s his opinion. And then he uses stats that only backs his opinion and ignores stats that wouldn’t support his opinion. He started opinions as if they’re facts, that’s why we argue w him

    • StillBP
      7:11 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Please point out the actual facts he used in his rant above. A whole paragraph without hardly any facts

    • StillBP
      7:13 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Couple typos in my first response but hopefully you can figure it out. But I’ll wait for the list of facts he actually used.

    • 4everUKBlue
      8:13 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      He also predicts the future so I don’t see how that is factual. Do you believe he knows for a fact what would’ve happened if another coach had been the coach Syrin?

    • The Big Lebowski
      12:11 pm February 21, 2020 Permalink

      4/7/2014 Kentucky vs. Connecticut L 54 – 60 NCAA Championship (at Arlington, TX)

      Worst loss in Cal’s tenure IN the tournament.

    • The Big Lebowski
      12:12 pm February 21, 2020 Permalink

      3/19/2013 Kentucky at Robert Morris L 57 – 59 NIT (at Moon Township, PA)

      Horrendous loss in that other tournament.

    • The Big Lebowski
      12:14 pm February 21, 2020 Permalink

      3/27/2010 (#2) Kentucky vs. (#6) West Virginia L 66 – 73 NCAA East Regional Finals (at Syracuse, NY)

      Not a great loss there either.

    • The Big Lebowski
      12:16 pm February 21, 2020 Permalink

      3/19/2016 (#10) Kentucky vs. (#14) Indiana L 67 – 73 NCAA East Regional Second Round (at Des Moines, IA)

      Indiana? Not a terrible team? lol

  13. BBNfromOklahoma
    11:26 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

    God I try to be positive on this site but I’m so sick of Mashburns shit.

    • 4everUKBlue
      11:32 pm February 19, 2020 Permalink

      You’re in a long line of people tired of his bullshit.

  14. Righteous1
    12:31 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

    Right on MashburnFan1! Post it again for a 3rd time for the Cal Lovers Wolfpack that are suffering from Calipari Derangement Syndrome! LSU is now a Quadrant 2 team. And if you do not view Kansas State from 2 yrs ago with a poor coach that was missing their best player, then you might have a severe case of CDS!

    • 4everUKBlue
      1:03 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Might want to go look at what happened to duke your favorite team…..lost by 22 to an unranked team. And Bruce Pearl, who you think can coach also lost to GA.

    • Thetruthshallsetbennyfree
      2:05 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      I love how roacha$$1 tells himself to post something a third time like we don’t know it’s the same person.

  15. CahillsCrossingNT
    9:18 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

    Calipari has failed with far more talented teams than the one he has now. Why will this year be different? Rupp is the only Kentucky coach to win more than one title and will remain so. It’s just a matter of accepting reality.

    • 4everUKBlue
      10:20 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Still comparing Rupp to everyone else….The game has changed immensely, there is way way way more parity, the players are bigger and more athletic and the egos are much bigger, but go ahead and live in the past with KYCAPSLOCK4EVER.

    • 4everUKBlue
      10:28 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

      And by the way, so has several other coaches, including your beloved K.

    • Thetruthshallsetbennyfree
      2:20 pm February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Williams can’t buy a win, and K had the team of the century and it took the refs to get them past UCF, and not even they could help when Dookie played a team with more than 1 player.

    • ClutchCargo
      4:37 pm February 20, 2020 Permalink

      Rupp was here for 40 years. You knuckleheads would have been putting For Sale signs in his front yard when he went from 1958-1972 with no titles.

  16. VirginiaCat
    11:30 am February 20, 2020 Permalink

    Our loses this year have been competitive; our biggest loss was 9 points against Auburn. Compare that to Duke’s 22-point loss last night. If we stay out of foul trouble and hit a modest amount of 3-pointers, we can play with any team in the country. Our composure, strong guard play, and desire to win can’t be underestimated. Are we the favorite? No, but I like out chances.

  17. Wyman70
    3:18 pm February 20, 2020 Permalink

    I have something EVERYONE can agree with. Our Cats are MUCH better than they were 3 months ago…!!! NO MORE INJURIES PLEASE. Eight scholarship players available?