If you’ve been reading my articles here at KSR over the last few weeks, you know that I was always a bit more optimistic about this year’s Kentucky Wildcats than most. As I’ve written about since the Wildcats started a four-game skid a few weeks back, UK’s struggles had always been more to do with the SEC being really good, than Kentucky being really bad. Remember, all four of Kentucky’s losses during that losing skid came to projected NCAA Tournament teams.
Still, as good as I thought Kentucky could be, I have to admit one thing: I never expected to see a performance like the one we got Tuesday night at Arkansas. On the road, against another NCAA Tournament caliber team (there are a lot of them in the SEC this year, aren’t there?) the Wildcats played at a level that frankly, I didn’t know they had. And it got me wondering: How much higher is Kentucky’s ceiling? And how much better can they get? The answer I believe, is a lot.
For starters, Tuesday night showed us everything Kentucky is capable of being. They were the bigger, stronger, more aggressive club against Arkansas, and it showed not only in the final score, but the box score too. The Wildcats have been a good defensive team all season but took it to the next level on the road against the Razorbacks, holding a team which is averaging 82 points per game to just 72, while also limiting them to 39 percent shooting from the field. Arkansas shot an average of over 48 percent coming into the game.
More importantly though, the game showed just how far some of the players on this roster have come –players that Kentucky will need if they want to make noise this March. Quade Green has carved out an important role for himself off the bench as this team’s second play-maker and ball-handler and is averaging 12 points and four assists in his last two games. Jarred Vanderbilt has literally gone from a player who can’t make a layup two games ago to a dynamic offensive and defensive force for the Wildcats. He had 11 and 9 against Arkansas, and I’ve got imagine he is amongst the top rebounders-per-minute-played in college basketball. P.J. Washington is coming off his third straight solid game with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Add those three in with Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and that is a core that is about as talented in anyone in college basketball.
But really, that last part is why I’m so optimistic about this team: They are just now starting to reach their potential. That’s because remember, not only are they the youngest team in college basketball (wait, has anyone mentioned that this season?) but also because few teams anywhere in the country have dealt with more roster instability than John Calipari. Jarred Vanderbilt missed two months with an injury then came back. Quade Green missed several games with back problems, and Sacha Killeya-Jones has missed time for various reasons as well. Tai Wynyard was part of the team and now he isn’t (remember kids, next time you got out on the town, leave your armed bodyguard at home). So you take the youngest team in college basketball and add in just overall inconsistency, and well, I don’t know how to tell you this but… of course this team was going to struggle!
The youngest team in college basketball is now 19-9, with 11 RPI Top 75 wins, and half their 19 victories coming against teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament. I'll tell ya this folks: Talk of Kentucky's demise was GREATLY exaggerated.
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) February 21, 2018
That’s why I always thought it was premature to give up on this team: It’s late February and John Calipari is just now figuring out who his players are and what they’re capable of doing. And as we’ve gotten later in the season, the results have begun to speak for themselves. The Wildcats have won two in a row and are 19-9 overall, and while that win-loss record doesn’t sound crazy impressive, keep in mind that Kentucky has the No. 2 strength of schedule in all of college basketball. No. 2! Why has no one talked about this? Does anyone realize just how tough this schedule has been?
Only it’s been brutal, which has led to some more-impressive-than-anyone-realizes results for these Wildcats. They have a staggering 11 wins against RPI Top 75 teams, and according to my math, just under half their victories (eight) have come against projected NCAA Tournament teams. That includes three in the SEC (Alabama, Arkansas, Texas A&M), three against Power 5 teams in the non-conference (Virginia Tech, Louisville and West Virginia) and two more projected to win their league (Vermont and East Tennessee State). Did I mention Mississippi State and Georgia (two more Kentucky wins) are also teams on the bubble and could play their way in?
And it’s because of the strength of that schedule, which is why I think this team can do real damage in March. The truth is, the Wildcats have already seen any kind of team they might get matched up with in the Big Dance. Think about it. If Kentucky gets pitted against a team with dominant guards, that’s no different than playing Auburn on the road. How about a team with size? Who has more size than Texas A&M? Want defensive toughness? It doesn’t get tougher than Missouri. How about a team with balance from all five spots? That perfectly describes Tennessee.
Point being, that as big as Tuesday night’s win was, it also set the tone for what could come next month.
We’re already in the last week in February. And incredibly, Kentucky is just now starting to find itself.