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Thoughts From UK Hoops’ SEC Tournament and Looking Ahead to NCAAs

(UK Athletics | Eddie Justice)

(UK Athletics | Eddie Justice)

The Kentucky Wildcats women’s basketball team went down to Greenville, SC with the expectation that they would come back to Lexington with a giant trophy and “2020 SEC Champions” engraved on the front plate. From the coaches down to the players, that was the goal.

As we know, their goals were interrupted by a cold-shooting performance against the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the semifinals, but there were still plenty of positives to take away from this past weekend as the team looks ahead to the NCAA Tournament.

The blowout win over Tennessee in the quarterfinals was impressive for several reasons. Not only was it arguably the team’s best overall display of basketball this season, but they executed their gameplan to perfection against a team that had a significant size advantage over them. That win against the Lady Volunteers has the set the team’s new bar. That is their peak. If they can tap back into that groove they were feeling 0n Friday when the NCAA tourney begins, it could be an eventful postseason run.

However, we saw two different Kentucky teams this past weekend. As impressive as the ‘Cats were on Friday, they were just as uninspiring on Saturday in the loss to MSU. We can chalk up some of the disappointing play from Saturday to fatigue, as it was the ladies’ second game in less than 24 hours. But overall, they were simply outplayed and outcoached.

Here are Kentucky’s stats from the win over UT compared to the loss against MSU.

 FG%3PT%ReboundsAssistsStealsTurnovers forced
vs. Tennessee33-65 (50.8%)11-24 (45.8%)3615919
vs. Mississippi State22-64 (34.4%)6-24 (25.0%)295412

Expecting Kentucky to shoot over 50 percent in every game is something that just isn’t going to happen. Only two teams in the entire country (Oregon and Baylor, both top-5 teams) have been able to do that throughout the course of the entire season. But we should reasonably expect them to shoot somewhere in the 43-45 percent mark if they want to make a deep run in March (they’re at 41.3 percent on the year and 40.1 percent in SEC play). Shooting 34.4 percent from the floor against anybody – especially a top-10 team in the country like MSU is – is the easiest way to end a tournament run. They’ll surely run into a team that is better than the Bulldogs, too, if they make it to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8.

But can they make it that far? It’s a fair question to ask. Kentucky has famously not suffered two consecutive losses this season and they have shown the comeback quality. But outside of the opening round game (which will be the first time playing since losing to MSU), they won’t even have a chance to bounce back once the NCAA tournament gets rolling. The ‘Cats know how to respond to adversity, but they’re about to embark on a journey that doesn’t give them much time to do so.

Charlie Creme, the Bracketologist over at espnW, currently has Kentucky as a six-seed out in the Dallas region. Since the first two rounds of the women’s NCAA Tournament allow the top-four seeds from each region to host, it would mean the ‘Cats travel up to Evanston, Illinois where Creme has Northwestern as the three-seed. As of right now, Creme has Kentucky taking on the 11-seed, Old Dominion, in the opening round.

While I personally believe that UK is worth a five-seed, it’s beginning to sound like the ‘Cats have no chance at a top-four seed and the right to host the first two rounds that comes with it. A win over MSU might have propelled them there and a win over South Carolina in the SEC Championship game could have all-but secured it, but none of that matters now. They’ll likely have to travel if they want to proceed.

“No matter what seed we are, I think we can be a very dangerous team,” Head coach Matthew Mitchell said after the loss to Mississippi State. “I’ve said that all along during the season. Provided we get the right matchup, I think we can go deep in the tournament.”

What concerns me the most going forward was how Mississippi State basically played a more talented version of basketball that the Vols did, yet there was a 39-point differential. Kentucky beat UT by 21 but lost to MSU by 18. Both UT and MSU have incredible size and are two are the top-rebounding programs in the country. Neither team is prone to catching heat from beyond the arc, either. The Bulldogs only made four more shots (29 compared to 25) against Kentucky than the Vols did and six fewer triples (one compared to seven). It was the defense of MSU that proved to be the overwhelming difference.

SEC Player of the Year Rhyne Howard went 8-15 from the floor against Tennessee but was 10-26 against Mississippi State. She scored 24 against the Vols and 26 against MSU but needed 11 more shots to reach that point against the Bulldogs. When Kentucky’s offense stalls, the team can become too reliant on Howard to produce and it puts her in a bad spot. By the end of Saturday’s game against MSU, she had no legs left and settled for plenty of jumpers in the second half. Howard mentioned before the tournament began she might be able to have the cast on her left hand removed before the NCAA tournament. After watching her struggle to pull off her routine dribble moves in the MSU loss, having her at 100 percent is going to critical.

As Mitchell said, the right matchup is key. Teams that combine size and talent have been the Achilles heel for Kentucky all season (really for the last few seasons now). If they somehow run into Mississippi State again in the NCAA tourney, it’s not going to be a favorable matchup. Tennessee simply didn’t have enough reliable ball handlers to capitalize on their size. Kentucky might be smaller than most teams, but they will almost always be quicker. Breaking down the opponent at the point of attack and preventing teams from even getting the ball into the paint is where Kentucky makes up for its lack of players over 6-foot-2.

The absence of Sabrina Haines in the second-half against MSU was a huge loss, too. She injured her knee during the second quarter and sat out the entire final 20 minutes. She’s been a player that has hit several timely shots for the ‘Cats this season and is also the team’s third-leading scorer. Having her back will help take the added pressure off Howard that she felt on Saturday once Haines went out.

“It got us one guard down. That was a tough situation to be in,” Mitchell said about Haines’ injury. “Such a dynamic team you’re playing that has such good guard play. I thought she [Haines] was a really solid defender for us. It certainly impacted our team.”

And they’ll certainly need her veteran leadership, as well. Haines, Jaida Roper, and Amanda Paschal – all seniors – are the three most reliable ball-handlers outside of Howard. Without Haines, coach Mitchell handed over more minutes to junior Chasity Patterson, who is a superior scorer in regards to those three seniors, but struggles at times to run the offense effectively. Against the loss to MSU, Howard was visibly frustrated with Patterson not running the proper plays. It happened on a few key possessions that ultimately didn’t lead to points. Roper and Paschal combined for just four points on 2-7 shooting against MSU with one assist and four turnovers.

There was a lot of missing production against MSU from players that have typically been more dependable.

Here is the stat that scares me the most, especially because it matches up with what I’ve seen from my own two eyes. Howard is just 53-150 (35.3 percent) from the field in seven Kentucky losses this season. She has failed to shoot over 50 percent in all of them despite taking over 21 attempts per contest. Howard is shooting nearly 47 percent on just 17.5 shots per game in Kentucky’s 20 wins this season. When the ‘Cats fall into trouble, they rely too much on Howard; She overexerts herself and the quality of her shots suffers as a result.

Howard scored nine points on 3-11 shooting (1-7 from three) with two turnovers during the second half in the loss to Mississippi State.

Against Tennesse, four Wildcat hit double-digits in scoring while another two added seven points. In the loss to MSU, only two ‘Cats recorded at least 10 points while just one other scored more than seven. When Kentucky is grooving, everyone is getting involved. If they struggle, it falls on Howard to make up for them. It’s nice to have a safety release valve that is as talented as Howard, but not even she can beat a top-10 team by herself for an entire 40 minutes.

With the Selection Show next Monday, Kentucky has to sit and wait to figure out where they’ll be playing. They aren’t in a bad position by any means, but there are noticeable flaws that still haven’t been mended quite yet. The good news is they’re going to have plenty of time to rest and prepare.

Article written by Zack Geoghegan

Covering all things NBA and UK Hoops. Follow me on Twitter: @ZGeogheganKSR