To steal from John Calipari’s quote book, “I like my team.”
While many of college basketball’s so-called experts overlook the SEC Champion Kentucky Wildcats in their predictions and projections, “I like my team.”
I like them over anyone else in the field, and here’s why…
Because they’re coming in hot.
Kentucky is on an 11-game winning streak entering the tournament, the longest of the season and the school’s longest since that 2014-15 team won 38 in a row. The Cats’ last loss came at Florida on Feb. 4 in De’Aaron Fox’s first game back from an ankle injury.
Kentucky is the only undefeated team among the tournament contenders since that date.
Because Cal is Swaggy Cal.
If you’ve kept up with Kentucky in recent years, you know there is a direct correlation between John Calipari’s personality (or swag) entering a season or tournament and then how that team performs. Since running through Nashville last weekend, Calipari’s mood exudes confidence and he is as swaggy as ever before.
“I’m excited. You can tell I’m jacked up to play basketball,” he said on last night’s call-in show.
Because the ESPN experts are picking against them.
And the ESPN experts are almost always wrong.
Because when the Cats are in desperate need of a late bucket, De’Aaron Fox is a proven closer.
As we saw in Nashville, De’Aaron Fox has elevated his game and proven he can go get a score when his team needs it. He was outstanding in the final minutes of the semifinal game and really throughout the entire tournament, which is why he was named MVP.
Calipari credits Fox’s improvement to finally playing through contact on his way to the rim. Fox is bumping back when he gets hit on drives to the basket, whereas he had been falling away from contact and throwing the ball up, hoping the official would bail him out with a whistle. By playing through the contact and continuing to attack, he is either getting all the way to the rim or making that official call the foul.
And the results speak for themselves.
Because Fox might’ve found his shot. (And that is scary.)
Fox shot 60 percent from three-point land in the last five games, hitting six of his 10 attempts from long range. He had only hit nine three-pointers all year in the 29 games before that stretch.
Because Bam Adebayo is getting better by the day.
We assumed we would see Adebayo hit his stride somewhere in early February as many of Cal’s bigs have done in the past. That was not the case, which is okay, but Bam is doing it now.
The inner-beast in Adebayo, that we had hoped would be unleashed a little earlier in the season, is finally loose and dominating the paint.
Matt Norlander over at CBSSports.com named Adebayo one of his 10 players ready to break out, saying, “Adebayo is a beast down low who still hasn’t been in contact with his ceiling. I could see it coming in the tournament, and in fact think that will happen.”
Because the UK backcourt is now a four-headed monster.
Dominique Hawkins is no longer the senior leader who could come in in certain situations to help out in times of need.
Dominique Hawkins is now the senior leader who needs to be on the floor because he helps in so many ways and Kentucky is a better team because of him.
Because Derek Willis is playing good basketball, too.
The four spot has been shaky all season and teams have exploited it to their advantage when Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel aren’t producing. But now Willis is playing well and taken ownership of that position by rebounding and defending, along with what he already brings offensively.
Willis had 22 rebounds and seven blocks in the three games in Nashville.
Because Calipari has a way of getting his teams to the Final Four.
Four appearances in seven years…
How could you bet against him?
Because the defense is better than it has been all year.
The reboot, the tweak or whatever you want to call it has Kentucky playing its best defense entering the tournament. Guys like Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Derek Willis have really improved their effort on that end and the team as a whole is much better today than a month ago.
Because Kentucky is 14th in Adjusted Offense and 9th in Adjusted Defense.
The recipe for a champion.
Because North Carolina and UCLA don’t scare me.
It’s easy to say Kentucky is in a tough bracket with North Carolina and UCLA because they’re considered to be Final Four contenders, but who’s to say they’re better than Kentucky? North Carolina already dropped one to the Wildcats, and the current Kentucky team is better than the one UCLA beat in the regular season. You’re going to play a very good team in the second weekend of any region; and of those three likely going to Memphis, give me Kentucky.
Because everyone is beatable.
There isn’t one really good team out there that is a surefire thing to be in it in the end. Any of the top seeds can do it, and I like my team as much as any of them.
Because Malik Monk.
If (and it’s a big if) Malik Monk gets hot like we know he can, give me Kentucky over anyone, anywhere.
When they’re on, Monk and De’Aaron Fox are the best scoring duo in college basketball.
Throw that in with everything else and I really, really, really like my team entering the tournament.