Kentucky Basketball: 5 Players Integral to Wildcats' Tournament Hopes

Matt Overing@@MOveringContributor IIIFebruary 20, 2012

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Players Integral to Wildcats' Tournament Hopes

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    John Calipari is one of the luckiest coaches in the nation. Any of his top seven players can lead the Kentucky Wildcats in scoring on any given night. In the NCAA tournament, competition will be demanding of Cal's 7-deep squad. But some players are more fundamental to the Wildcats' success than others.

    Anthony Davis anchors the Wildcats inside. Without him in the game, teams with any combination of size, skill and athleticism can score in the lane (see: first half, Ole Miss).

    He has been an integral part of the Wildcats' 26-1 campaign and will be called upon just as much in the NCAA tournament. 

    But who else needs to be at the top of their game if Kentucky expects to bring Big Blue Nation No. 8?

    Here are Anthony Davis and four other Wildcats integral to the hopes of this Kentucky team in the NCAA tournament.

Anthony Davis

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    Anthony Davis is defense. He has 131 blocks on the year, good for 33rd in the nation if he were a team by himself. Duke as a team has blocked 109 shots on the year.

    Where Davis gets into trouble is with fouls. He has only fouled out once this year, a remarkable statistic considering how much he leaves his feet to block shots.

    In the three games that he fouled four times or more, Kentucky's margin of victory is 6.3 points per game and a 2-1 record (Kentucky's margin of victory is 19.7 points on the year).

    The last time Davis had a four-foul outing was Dec. 10 at Indiana. A far more pressing matter is when Davis fouls twice in the first half—resulting in a much less-intimidating Wildcat defense. 

    The Uniblocker is one of the most prolific shot-blockers in the history of the game. If he can stay on the court 35-plus minutes per game in the NCAA tournament, the likelihood of Kentucky winning drastically increases.

Eloy Vargas

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    For John Calipari to play his backup center Eloy Vargas, several things need to happen.

    One, Anthony Davis would have to get in foul trouble. Two, Kentucky's offense has to be clicking. Three, Calipari has to be in the mood.

    If these conditions are met, Eloy Vargas will see playing time. He won't see the floor if the game is close, and Davis hasn't recorded two fouls. He doesn't contribute anything offensively (25 points in 24 games played), but his defense is notably positive.

    In the end, Calipari has to call his number. Whatever Cal sees, whether it's matchups or pace of the game, decides whether or not Vargas plays.

    But if and when Vargas does play, his performance is critical to this team's tournament hopes. If he plays early, it is because Kentucky is playing extremely, extremely well or because Kentucky needs size down low without Anthony Davis.

    In any case, Eloy Vargas is two Davis-fouls away from becoming a very important piece in Kentucky's tournament run.

Terrence Jones

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    An aggressive Terrence Jones is an All-American.

    A passive Terrence Jones will struggle to make Second Team All-SEC.

    Terrence Jones has the size and skill to be great. What goes on in the six inches between his ears defines whether or not he is an All-American. In recent games, he has shown the "will to win" that was absent in his mid-year swoon. 

    While Jones isn't the only reason for the rapid improvement of the Kentucky offense, his elevated play has certainly fueled the fire. If he continues this trend, the Wildcats will be near impossible to beat. 

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

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    Every passionate Kentucky fan knows that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist affects the game in ways that don't show up in the box score. He has that "will to win" that is lacking in so many other players with such a high skill level.

    MKG leads by example, whether it is helping a teammate off the floor or battling for a rebound down low. He's the precedent for effort on John Calipari's team, and his effort is what has kept Kentucky rolling this season.

    He's had four points and seven rebounds in the last two games for Kentucky. That trend will not continue, but his importance to this team cannot be overstated.

    He plays his best against the best competition (17 and 11 vs. North Carolina, 24 and 19 vs. Louisville, 13 and 13 vs. Florida). Tournament time brings out the best in players, and Kidd-Gilchrist will answer the call.

Marquis Teague

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    Marquis Teague drives the Kentucky offense. At the start of the year, Teague looked like he was 16 and was thrust behind the wheel of a Ferrari. He was physically ready to handle the reigns of one of the most-talented offenses in the country, but his maturity was far from satisfactory. Turnovers, poor shooting and overall poor decision-making showed that Teague was overwhelmed with this responsibility.

    But a few dings and dents could be expected from a freshman still learning how to shift gears. Teague showed the potential (vs. Portland: 14 points, eight assists, four steals) but also showed there is plenty of room for improvement (vs. Louisville: four points, five assists, four turnovers, five fouls).

    And improved he has. Teague is now cool, calm and collected behind the wheel of one of the sharpest looking rides in the nation. He lets the game come to him and makes much better decisions with the ball. He knows when to hit the gas and he knows when to tap the brakes. 

    Marquis Teague's maturity is directly related to the improvement of the Kentucky offense as a whole.

    If this relationship continues, Big Blue Nation will celebrate number eight.