Reasons Kentucky Will Be Dancing in March
The Kentucky Wildcats are sitting right on the bubble of the NCAA tournament field. They are one of the last four teams in right now, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi.
Just two weeks ago, things became gloomy for Kentucky when its star freshman forward Nerlens Noel tore his ACL at Florida in a 69-52 loss. It became worse four days later when the Wildcats lost 88-58 at Tennessee.
Wins against Vanderbilt and Missouri this past week have put the Wildcats back on track. The question, though, is whether they can do enough in their final regular-season games and in the SEC tournament to make the NCAA tournament?
There is a lot of pressure on this Kentucky team, but here are five reasons why the Wildcats will be dancing in March.
1. Strong Play from Archie Goodwin in Crucial Games
Archie Goodwin made a big impact in the Wildcats' last two wins, averaging 17 points a game.
He wasn't able to score in the first half of the Missouri game, but dropped 18 points in the second half and in overtime to help Kentucky get the win.
Goodwin plays especially well when Kentucky is playing against its toughest opponents.
He scored 24 points against Ole Miss in late January when his team desperately needed to win. That victory will be helpful from an RPI perspective as the Wildcats continue to be evaluated down the final stretch of the regular season.
Goodwin's best attribute is attacking the defense off the dribble. He will be a game-changer when the madness begins in March.
He is averaging 13.9 points and 3.1 assists per game.
2. An Improving Wildcat Backcourt
The Wildcats' backcourt has improved drastically this season and has looked stellar in the past two games.
Mays is one of two Kentucky seniors and has taken the responsibility of being in a leadership role. He had two solid games this past week against Vanderbilt and Missouri.
Mays had nine points, six rebounds and six assists against Vanderbilt on Wednesday. He then went off against Missouri on Saturday night, scoring 24 points, hitting 4-of-8 from beyond the arc.
Mays not only played well in a must-win game, he also proved that he can be counted on as a leader in important games.
He is averaging 9.9 points per game and is Kentucky's most reliable free-throw shooter, making 83.6 percent of his attempts.
Like Goodwin and Mays, Harrow has contributed to Kentucky's recent success. He's averaged 14.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and five assists in the Wildcats' past two games.
If Kentucky is going to win its last four games of the regular season, it will need Harrow to be at the top of his game like he has been of late.
The Wildcats have a very good chance to make the NCAA tournament if these three players can keep their scoring totals up, as well as make big plays in close games like they did against Missouri this past Saturday.
3. Physical Frontcourt
It's been tough on Kentucky's frontcourt since it lost Nerlens Noel, one of the best freshman in the country.
Noel had been averaging 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game before being injured on February 12 at Florida.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress had one of his best games against Missouri on Saturday night. He had 21 points and seven rebounds in the Wildcats' 90-83 overtime victory.
Poythress, who is averaging 11.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, could be the difference in his team making the NCAA tournament. When he is making jump shots and driving to the rim, his team thrives.
Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein is the other target down low. He has played well offensively and continues to be a physical presence on defense. He had his most productive offensive game last Wednesday, scoring a career-high 20 points against Vanderbilt.
Against Missouri, he only had seven points, but he still played a big part in Kentucky's win. He had a career-high 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots.
If Poythress and Cauley-Stein, who is averaging 8.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, continue to be productive in the last four games of the regular season, the Wildcats could clinch an NCAA tournament berth before the SEC tournament begins.
4. Coach John Calipari
Head coach John Calipari is not used to being in this type of situation. His teams are usually a lock for the NCAA tournament at this point in the season.
Calipari has three freshmen in his starting lineup, and it has been a more difficult transition than many would have anticipated. Calipari knew his team wasn't going to be as good this season.
This Kentucky team hasn't been what the nation thought it would be, but it appears to be making strides down the final stretch of the season. The overtime win against Missouri was huge for Calipari's squad.
Calipari has been wildly successful as head coach of the Wildcats. His worst finish at Kentucky in his first three seasons was a loss in the Elite Eight in 2009-10.
This season has been tough on him, and Kentucky fans have questioned some of his moves.
Has he been a bit more animated on the sidelines? Yes. Is his team not as talented as it usually is? Yes.
But he has a way of getting his team motivated to play in big games and continues to be one of the best coaches in college basketball.
The last time a team of Calipari's didn't make an NCAA tournament was in 2005 when he was still with Memphis. He also hasn't lost more than 10 games in a season since that 2004-05 season.
Look for Calipari and his team to play their way into the NCAA tournament when it's all said and done.
5. Winnable Games Down the Stretch
The Wildcats are fortunate to have two of their last four-regular season games against Arkansas and Florida. One win over either team could guarantee Kentucky a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Kentucky isn't worrying about just getting one of those wins, though. If it wins out, it would clinch at least a share of the SEC regular-season title, and possibly an outright title.
The Wildcats will more than likely win their home game against Mississippi State on Wednesday, because the Bulldogs, who are on a 12-game losing streak, have been awful.
Rupp Arena is also a tough place for opponents to play. Kentucky has lost just two games at home this season.
Kentucky will then travel to Arkansas on March 2 in a game between teams fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
If the Wildcats pull that game out and win against a very beatable Georgia team in Athens on March 7, the final regular-season game at home against Florida could decide the regular-season SEC title. But that will only happen if Alabama, which is currently in second place in the SEC, a half-game ahead of Kentucky, loses one of its final three games.
Otherwise, the Crimson Tide, which defeated Kentucky earlier this season, would win the tiebreaker over the Wildcats. Alabama finishes its season at Florida, at Ole Miss and at home against Georgia.
The Gators were upset Tuesday night at Tennessee and are one game ahead of Alabama and 1.5 games ahead of the Wildcats in the conference standings.
Although winning the SEC title is surely a goal for Kentucky, taking care of business against three teams—Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia—it should match up well against will be key in getting a berth to the dance.