This hasn’t been the season that many expected from the Kentucky Wildcats.
UK was ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and briefly held the No. 1 overall seed in ESPN’s first-week-of-the-season bracketology projections for the 2023 NCAA Tournament.
And then the losses started to mount. First Michigan State, and then Gonzaga, and then UCLA, and ultimately several more before last week’s defeat to Vanderbilt in the Cats’ opening game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
A lot has gone wrong for these Wildcats over the past five months or so, with a preseason knee injury to reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe setting the tone for a 2022-23 season full of setbacks and disappointment.
But while Kentucky managed only a 21-11 record — good enough for a 6 seed in this year’s tournament — the Cats will go into their first-round game against Providence on Friday night in the same position as everyone else in the bracket.
Win four games, go to the Final Four. Win six, cut down the nets as national champions.
A whole lot will have to go right for Kentucky to accomplish its preseason goal.
Here are five things the Wildcats need to do to enjoy a deep run through March Madness.
Get healthy, stay healthy
This is relatively speaking, of course.
There’s no way Kentucky is going to be 100 percent healthy — or, really, anything close to it — during this NCAA Tournament, but it would obviously be a major plus for the Wildcats if they could at least get everyone on the court and playing in an effective manner.
Sahvir Wheeler hasn’t played in nearly six weeks due to an ankle injury. CJ Fredrick has missed time recently with a rib injury and is playing through that pain. Cason Wallace has been playing much of the season with injury issues, and he recently hurt his left ankle. Jacob Toppin missed practice time last week with a hamstring injury. There are still moments when Oscar Tshiebwe, who had a preseason knee operation, doesn’t look the same as he did last season.
So, yeah, that’s a lot. And those guys won’t just be magically restored to health by Friday night.
But if they can all play at a decently high level, Kentucky’s chances go up.
John Calipari said on Selection Sunday that he was instituting new team rules for this week. To start Friday, a player will need to practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. And even to come off the bench against Providence, players need to get in quite a bit of practice time, said Calipari, who added that Wallace, Toppin, Fredrick and Wheeler all missed considerable time before the SEC Tournament loss to Vanderbilt, even though all but Wheeler played in the game.
“It takes an edge away,” he said of guys playing without practice. “We have to compete. … We weren’t the same.”
Calipari revealed on his weekly radio show Monday night that UK scrimmaged earlier that day, and everyone participated. One player — he didn’t say who — didn’t go through full-contact drills. That was probably Wheeler, who Calipari has said he would give a little extra leeway to this week, or Fredrick, who said that the staff has been limiting his contact in practice so as not to damage his cracked ribs any further.
UK has won some big games this season with key guys out, but — in most of those cases — the Cats have had time to plan for the absences. And some of the team’s worst losses have come amid considerable injury setbacks.
With no margin for error left in this season, the Cats need all hands on deck to make a run.
Antonio Reeves is on
For UK to have any chance at a lengthy NCAA Tournament stay, several guys are going to have to step up. Kentucky needs Tshiebwe to be a force around the basket. Toppin has developed into a catalyst for the Cats’ success. Wallace will obviously be a key.
But is there a more important Wildcat right now than Antonio Reeves?
With Wallace clearly hobbled, Fredrick even more banged up, and Wheeler absent for more than a month, Reeves has been the clear backcourt scorer for the Wildcats, and if any Kentucky player is going to get hot — often a requisite for a surprise March run — he seems to be the most likely candidate.
Try these stats on for size:
In Kentucky’s 21 wins this season, Reeves is 109-for-229 from the floor (47.6 percent) and 55-for-117 from three-point range (47.0 percent).
In the Wildcats’ 11 losses this season, Reeves is 50-for-142 from the floor (35.2 percent) and 19-for-65 from three-point range (29.2 percent). He’s shot better than 50 percent from the field just once in those 11 defeats, and that was a 7-for-13 performance in a 78-52 loss at Alabama, and the senior guard needed to make four of his final five shots — beginning after the Cats were already down 20 points — to accomplish that stat line.
It’s unfair to place too much pressure on any one of these Cats going into a tournament where they’ll face such long odds, and Kentucky is certainly capable of winning in March even if Reeves has an off night. But UK’s hopes for a meaningful run surely increase if he’s on.
Crash the boards
The Wildcats aren’t going to wow anyone with their offensive prowess during this tournament. Kentucky can be hard to watch with the ball in its hands, to put it kindly, especially in halfcourt sets. But UK still goes into March Madness at No. 14 in the KenPom offensive efficiency ratings.
A big reason for that is the Cats’ ability on the offensive glass. They might not get the best looks, take the highest-percentage shots or make every one of them, but they rebound their misses at a high rate, which prolongs possessions and leads to more points.
Kentucky enters the NCAA Tournament with a 38.7 offensive rebounding percentage, second only to UConn in the national rankings. (In conference play only, the Cats are No. 1 in the country in that stat.)
Obviously, Oscar Tshiebwe is a big reason for that. The nation’s rebound king for a second consecutive season is No. 2 in the country in offensive rebounding rate (behind only presumptive national player of the year Zach Edey of top-seeded Purdue).
Time and again this season, the Cats have piled it on in the offensive rebounding column. Now, that hasn’t always equated to victories. There have been some games with a large number of offensive rebounds that still ended in losses, but a few of those outings have also featured an inability to get second-chance points on those ample opportunities.
Sort through the Cats’ losses, and there’s often a shortcoming on the boards.
And winning that overall battle will be vitally important. Kentucky has been outrebounded only five times in 32 games this season. UK’s record in those games: 0-5.
When the Wildcats outrebound an opponent by more than four boards, they’re 19-4.
Hit your free throws
Back in the preseason, a story in this newspaper projected — using sound math, by the way — that this might be Kentucky’s best free-throw shooting team ever.
Throw that one on the burn pile.
Not only are these Cats not the greatest free-throw shooting team in program history, they’ve been below average for the Calipari era.
Kentucky goes into the NCAA Tournament shooting 70.3 percent from the line. That would place this squad ninth of Calipari’s 14 teams. His 2019-20 Wildcats shot 79.7 percent on free throws, the best mark in UK basketball history.
UK’s free-throw numbers in 21 wins: 73.3 percent.
UK’s free-throw numbers in 11 losses: 64.4 percent.
In eight of the Wildcats’ 11 losses, they’ve shot below their season average from the line, including an 11-for-20 showing in their most recent defeat — an 80-73 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament last week.
“Make free throws,” Calipari said after that one, for the umpteenth time this season. “Make your free throws.”
The Kentucky coach has been lamenting his team’s struggles at the line for the past few months after being especially bullish on the Wildcats’ prospects there going into the season.
If UK makes any run at all in the NCAA Tournament, it will surely be involved in some close games. And every single point will matter.
Defense, defense, defense
The first four points on this checklist are all doable.
Kentucky can get relatively healthy. Antonio Reeves can score in bunches. The Cats can rebound, and they have even shown the ability to hit free throws at a high rate in big games.
But can they defend? To last long in this NCAA Tournament, they’ll have to.
And pretty much all evidence to this point says that’s a long shot.
As much as Calipari’s offense has been maligned this season, it’s the defense that’s really been subpar — especially by recent UK standards. Going into the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats are 75th in defensive efficiency, according to the KenPom numbers. The only team in the 14-year Calipari era that’s been worse was the 2012-13 squad, which was 88th nationally but lost star shot-blocker Nerlens Noel to a season-ending injury and ultimately got sent home in the first round of the NIT.
These Cats struggle mightily to defend the perimeter. And when opponents get by their man there, no one on Kentucky’s team has shown the ability to be a fear-inducing rim-protector. That’s a bad combination, and a rare one for a Calipari team. On top of that, breakdowns within the team defense have been common. When one player gets out of position or makes a mistake, it’s led to a domino effect of bad defense elsewhere on the court, and opponents have reveled in the opportunities that result.
If the bracket holds, Kentucky will face two top-20 offenses in its first three games — if the Cats get that far, of course — with Providence (16th) on Friday night and a potential matchup with 2-seeded Marquette (seventh) in the Sweet 16, with 3-seeded Kansas State (51st) as possible second-round matchup.
When all the Cats have been healthy and on the same page, there has been a certain connectivity that has led to better collective defensive performances. But even in what was arguably their best stretch of the season — four straight wins over Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn last month — the Wildcats were still only the No. 43 defensive team in the country, according to the Torvik ratings for that span. And over the last 10 games, Kentucky is just 97th nationally in defense, per those ratings.
Can the Cats do any better in March? If they plan on sticking around for very long, they’ll have to.
No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Providence
What: NCAA Tournament first round
Where: Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina.
When: 7:10 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 21-11, Providence 21-11
Series: Kentucky leads 3-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 58-38 on Nov. 30, 2014, in Lexington