Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats' Blueprint to Climbing the SEC Standings
Kentucky's win over Missouri on Saturday night not only looked good on its NCAA Tournament resume, it helped the Wildcats even more with their SEC standing.
Kentucky moved to 19-8 overall and 10-4 in the Southeastern Conference. They're currently tied for second with Alabama and are two games back of Florida for best in the conference.
This is vital come conference tournament time, as Kentucky can avoid playing Missouri or Florida until the SEC Championship game, something that's crucial in securing its bid for the NCAA Tournament.
Going forward, Kentucky will need to win the rest of its four remaining games to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament, and this list will describe what the Wildcats need to do in order for this to happen.
Willie Cauley-Stein Continues to Be Willie Cauley-Stein
It seems so simple to be who you are.
However, it's not so simple when you're filling in for the best defensive player in the country who is out for the season with an injury.
That's the role Willie Cauley-Stein is currently in. We've seen the good and bad with him in this role too. The bad being at Tennessee, in the first game after Nerlens Noel's injury, and the good being his 20-point game against Vanderbilt last week, followed up with a 12-rebound and seven-block game against Missouri.
Cauley-Stein doesn't need to put up Noel's numbers in order for Kentucky to be successful. He just needs to be the high-energy guy that busts his butt on every play.
The freshman has improved his offensive game as the season has gone on and that needs to continue. When Cauley-Stein attacks the basket off a post move, he does a good job of drawing fouls, getting to the line seven times against Missouri.
However, he can't go 1-for-7 from the line when he gets there.
Alex Poythress Plays in Beast Mode
It seems to happen every five or six games this year.
Alex Poythress looks impressive and you start asking if that was the game that will turn his season around.
Well, it happened again. Poythress had 21 points and seven rebounds in the overtime win against Missouri and looked like the most dominant player on the court for most of the game.
Poythress is the most important key to Kentucky's season. Before the season started, he was selected to an All-American team and was expected to be arguably the best freshman in the country. However, his lack of success has truly brought down Kentucky this season.
Poythress will be a mismatch for the remaining four teams Kentucky will face, including against Florida where he will be facing Erik Murphy. It will be necessary for him to be aggressive on the offensive end of the floor down the stretch.
He took 10 shots on Saturday night and got to the line six times. He needs to average a minimum of 10 shots a game, no matter how the contest starts for him in order to be a factor in Kentucky's success.
Continue to Utilize the Side Ball Screen
It seems so simple.
Swing the ball to the wing to Julius Mays and have Kyle Wiltjer or Alex Poythress come set a ball screen. With Wiltjer setting the screen, it allows for the possibility of a pick-and-pop or classic pick-and-roll play.
Wiltjer has shown the ability to read defenses this year and play both in the paint and outside the arc. He's a mismatch for 98 percent of teams Kentucky faces, with only Duke's Ryan Kelly and Florida's Erik Murphy being the same type of player as Wiltjer.
With Mays in control of the ball on the side screen, it provides yet another shooting option as Mays is shooting 39 percent from the three-point line this season. Defenses are required to respect his shooting option, allowing Poythress or Wiltjer to get a quicker step to the rim before the defense can recover.
If Mays isn't the one controlling the ball, Archie Goodwin is another strong option to run the side screen with due to his ability to get into the lane. Running it with the Goodwin/Wiltjer combination makes defenses dither on whether to take away the three from Wiltjer or the lane from Goodwin.
This offense needs to be Kentucky's first option in the half court for the rest of the season. It provides a simple motion while keeping defenses guessing, similar to the read-option in football.
Four players scoring in double digits. A fifth with seven points and another with four.
This is the type of balanced scoring a team Kentucky needs to have the rest of the season. With no true go-to scorer or dominant scorer on the team, the Wildcats needs to be balanced the rest of the way out in order to succeed.
The main positive of having no go-to scorer is that late in close games, opposing teams have to respect every player on the floor for Kentucky. With four players—Harrow, Goodwin, Poythress and Mays—able to take their defender off the dribble, teams won't be able to lock down just one of them.
The balanced scoring also opens up the lane for Wiltjer and Cauley-Stein to operate.
Very few teams are as balanced as Kentucky is, with its top-six players (not counting Noel) averaging at least eight points per game this season.
Julius Mays' Leadership
While Alex Poythress is the most crucial ingredient to Kentucky's success, Julius Mays has been the clutch player for Kentucky.
Whether it's late in the shot clock or late in the game, Mays has been the one taking and often hitting the big shot for the Wildcats this year. Being the only senior on this year's team, despite it being his first year in Lexington, Mays has taken the leadership role for Kentucky.
With each game being a do-or-die type atmosphere, it will be Mays that will rise to the occasion when Kentucky needs a big shot. Mays responded against Missouri by putting up 24 points while drilling four shots from behind the arc.
It will also be up to Mays to stretch the floor. We touched on how his shooting helps the side ball screen, but it also helps with the dribble-drive offense as well.
In addition to his offensive contributions, Mays has taken a lot of the defensive responsibility for Kentucky. Despite being only 6'2" at the shooting guard position, Mays has shown the ability to guard the other team's best player. He does this while staying out of foul trouble, something vital to a six-man rotation team.
With Kentucky needing to win every game left, we will see how Mays continues to embrace his role as the older brother and if he continues to step his game up.