Even though the University of Kentucky basketball team has shown a marked improvement over the last month, it still enters conference play this week unranked and with many questions unanswered.
Head coach John Calipari has always downplayed the importance of regular season play with regards to records and conference championships, but winning the SEC title back from Vanderbilt would do wonders for a team that has been noted as Calipari's poorest performing squad during his time at UK.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, there will be some major roadblocks between them and the SEC crown.
The following list will highlight five of the biggest roadblocks they will need to overcome if they want to hoist the trophy in Nashville this March.
All stats via ESPN.com
The narrative that most folks in sports media take with John Calipari is that he constantly has to reload with a completely new team of talented (but very green) freshman each year.
While that may be partially true, he has, however, always had a strong veteran presence to help guide his younger players through the beginning stages of their development—until now.
Patrick Patterson (Junior) and Darius Miller (Sophomore)
Josh Harrellson (Senior), Darius Miller (Junior), and DeAndre Liggins (Junior)
Darius Miller (Senior), Doron Lamb (Sophomore), and Terrence Jones (Sophomore)
For the 2012-13 season, the Wildcats' veteran experience (for players that actually see significant playing time) consists of:
Kyle Wiltjer (Sophomore), who saw very little playing time last season
Jarrod Polson (Junior), who saw even less playing time than Wiltjer in the last two seasons combined.
Ryan Harrow (Sophomore), who did not play at all last year while sitting out due to transferring.
Julius Mays (Senior), who is a transfer in his first season in Calipari's system.
Suffice it to say, this team will need to do a lot of growing up together (and soon) to be able to play like it should, particularly on the road in the SEC, where opposing fanbases always show up and get loud in the hopes that their team can upset the Wildcats.
John Calipari has traditionally played down the importance of free throw shooting to his teams' overall success, but there is no doubt that this year's squad has left far too many points (and maybe even a couple of wins) on the floor due to its poor performance at the charity stripe.
As a team, the Wildcats are shooting a dismal 64.2 percent, but that doesn't even tell the entire story. Aside from Kyle Wiltjer (81.3 percent) and Julius Mays (92.3 percent), no one else on the team is shooting above 70 percent.
It also doesn't help that Willie Cauley-Stein and Nerlens Noel, two players that figure to be hacked quite a bit in the post (and make subsequent trips to the line), are both shooting well under 60 percent.
If the Wildcats' free throw shooting doesn't improve, it could cost them again before the end of the season and make the difference between a comfortable win and a close loss.
As I've discussed before, Kentucky hasn't been able to find a consistent go-to scorer, even though we are already into the month of January. Archie Goodwin would seem like the best choice right now, but he has had more than a few games where his scoring has all but disappeared.
In that same vein, it always seems like when one of the Wildcats gets hot from the floor, whoever had been hot before cools off significantly. This is fairly typical with a young team, but Kentucky will need to find a player it can consistently count on in crunch time if the Wildcats want to make it through conference play.
While it is highly debatable that Mizzou deserves its top 10 ranking, the Tigers will be a very tough team to beat, particularly if they shoot as well as they did against Alabama to start off their SEC season.
Even without Mike Dixon, the Tigers have plenty of offensive weapons that will be very hard for the Wildcats to stop. UK may be able to handle them well in Rupp Arena, but if Mizzou keeps playing like it has been into March, all bets are off if the teams meet in the SEC tournament.
Luckily for the Wildcats, they don't have to play Florida until February when they will have had time to (hopefully) grow as a team.
While Mizzou's high ranking is questionable, Florida's is definitely not. Kenny Boynton and company are playing some great basketball (if you overlook their meltdown against Kansas St.) and will be incredibly tough to beat, whether it's at the O'Connell Center, Rupp Arena, or in Nashville.
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