Kentucky (16-5, 5-1 SEC) walked into Oxford tonight as the team to beat. UK was on a strong 5-0 run, winning 11 of their past 12 games, and the Associated Press had rewarded this effort with a Top-25 ranking (No. 24).
However, after being caught off guard by Ole Miss (11-9, 2-4 SEC), who have been sitting near the bottom of the SEC-West, the Cats have lost their momentum and are struggling to find the groove that they used against Tennessee and Georgia just weeks prior.
Billy G, take note: the following are currently the biggest issues that are keeping your team from climbing back into the Top 25.
1) Get a consistent third man
The Cats have a great duo in Meeks and Patterson—this is undeniable. However, when two guards swarm Jodie as soon as he touches the ball and the defense gets solid positioning inside the paint around Patterson, the shots don't fall.
Solution? If another Wildcat can step up and average 10+ points a game (here's lookin' at you, Perry Stevenson), the pressure on Meeks and Patterson will be relaxed enough so that they can be more efficient scorers.
2) Turnover troubles
This ain't your grandma's kitchen, so get rid of the turnovers. You don't go far in March when your squad averages 18.4 of them a game. This problem has plagued Kentucky all season, and it needs to stop if they want to make it to an SEC championship game, much less the second round of the Big Dance.
Solution? Pass efficiently and reduce the turnovers now; otherwise, you can say goodbye to hanging up another banner in Rupp for quite a while.
3) Take advantage of the glass
The Wildcats are averaging 38.8 rebounds a game, as well as any other squad in the NCAA. A majority of these come from the combination of Patterson and Stevenson, both of whom have demonstrated great presence down low.
However, Ramon Harris, UK's No. 3 man in the post, is only pulling down 3.1 a game. The rest of the squad doesn’t average much higher than that.
Solution? If injury-laden Harris can get back to full strength and take full advantage of the boards he pulls down, the Cats stand a much better chance come tournament time.
4) Learn to control the game tempo
Ole Miss showed us tonight that if you can match the speed of Kentucky, then you can upset their stride, get in their face, and force the Cats to make bad shots.
This was evident as they held Meeks, the No. 3 scorer in the nation, to a paltry four of 15 from the field. If Kentucky can learn how to vary their speed on each possession, they will be able to throw off the defense in their favor.
Solution? Mix-and-match strong drives to the lane with the inside-outside game or some 15-foot jumpers from the wing, and you can bet that W-column will shoot higher.
5) Maintain focus for ALL forty minutes
Each of Kentucky's five losses this season can be attributed to a lack of focus. The prime examples of this include the game-sealing three-point shot from Louisville's Edgar Sosa with less than five seconds on the clock and the last six minutes of play against the University of Miami (FL).
Even though we aren't quite into one-and-done tournament games, this club needs to treat it as such, especially when they find themselves in hostile environments for the remainder of their SEC road-games.
Solution? If the entire Kentucky team can find the same heart, grit, and pure determination that they had when Keith Bogans* and Chuck Hayes* ruled Lexington, they will be able to find ways to make comebacks in the close ones. (Note*: The charismatic team leaders of the '02-'03 Cats that dominated the SEC: 19-0)
As a die-hard, life-long member of the Big Blue Nation, I love the fact that this squad is beginning to see what they are made of. If Kentucky can cut the fat and refine the edges of their game, they have the potential to be unstoppable in March. One can only hope that it doesn't take a few more additions to the L-side of the schedule to teach them this.