Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats' Blueprint to Peak Before Postseason
Some of the ridiculous preseason expectations won't be met by the 2013-14 Kentucky basketball team. It's not going to go 40-0, and the Wildcats are likely to finish second in the SEC regular season standings.
However, the larger goals are still more than attainable for Kentucky—most importantly, winning the NCAA tournament. It won't be easy, as Kentucky is projected to be a fifth seed in ESPN's latest Bracketology.
There's still time to improve its seed, but things need to be done for Kentucky in order to peak at the right time. An argument could be made that the Wildcats are starting to peak right now after a dominating win at Ole Miss and a gritty win at home over LSU.
Read on to see what needs to be done in order for Kentucky to be playing its best come time for March Madness.
Take Care of Inferior Opponents
Kentucky needs to start asserting dominance over teams it should be blowing out. The Wildcats have four games remaining and three of those are against teams that shouldn't give them a challenge in Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina.
Sure, Arkansas beat Kentucky when the Wildcats traveled to Fayetteville earlier this season. However, the Razorbacks have only two roads wins the entire year. The wins are a four-point victory over Mississippi State and a two-point win at Vanderbilt.
South Carolina and Alabama are both struggling this year. The Gamecocks are only 10-17 on the year while the Crimson Tide are 11-16.
Kentucky needs to show the country, those who determine the brackets and more importantly themselves that it can be a dominant team against these opponents. Too often this season, we've seen Kentucky let a big lead slip away or struggle out of the gates against teams like this. If Kentucky wants to be a factor in March, it cannot let games like these stay close.
Consistent Center Play
Kentucky has two centers who are capable of changing a game both defensively and by rebounding. However, these two centers seem to be so inconsistent that you never know which game they will show up to.
Yes, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson have both shown flashes of greatness this year, but they've also shown a lot of play that questions why either of them belong on the floor for the Wildcats.
The last three games, Cauley-Stein has played better and earned more of the minutes. He's played at least 27 minutes in each of those games and has averaged just under six points and over four rebounds per game.
Johnson, on the other hand, hasn't been able to play over 13 minutes in any of those three games with averages of just two points and two rebounds per game.
Luckily for head coach John Calipari, Kentucky has depth at this position. If one of these two are struggling, he can swap in the other to play the majority of the minutes. If both are struggling, he can go to the bench for freshman Marcus Lee or run Julius Randle at the center position.
However, it's key for Kentucky that it starts getting consistent play from both of these players. Cauley-Stein is a unique player who can protect the rim with the best in the country, however when he's not playing well, he often gives up too many easy baskets.
Continue to Press the Tempo
Andrew Harrison is developing into a special point guard right in front of everyone's eyes. He won't get credit for being the player everyone expected him to be as the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2013, however he's turning into one who can lead a national champion.
In recent games, especially against LSU, Harrison got the ball in his hands fast and the ball up the court even quicker. He made smart decisions in this fast-paced tempo, knowing when to attack the rim with his size or pass the ball ahead to his brother Aaron or James Young on the wing.
He's continued to decrease his turnovers, committing five turnovers in a game only once in conference play, while increasing his performance.
More importantly, with Kentucky's length and athleticism, there are very few teams in the country that can match what the Wildcats can do in the open court. Take a look at the game at Ole Miss last week. During a first-half run, Kentucky looked to be competing for a dunk contest as it was constant lobs and finishes at the rim.
When this young team runs the floor, it seems to get a boost of confidence and swagger that you don't often see in the half-court game. Kentucky needs to continue to rebound and quickly outlet the ball to a guard and play at a pace it is comfortable with.
Get to the SEC Championship Game
Kentucky doesn't have to win the SEC tournament to be peaking heading into March Madness, but the Wildcats do need to play in the championship game.
The SEC has a lot of mediocre teams this year with Kentucky and Florida being the gems of the conference. There's no reason why these two teams shouldn't meet in the SEC Championship Game either.
If Kentucky isn't able to get to that game, subsequently losing to an inferior opponent, its stock quickly plummets. With a young team, the loss can stick with them come NCAA tournament time.
A loss to Florida isn't necessarily a bad thing though. Remember, Florida is the No. 1 team in the country and the favorite to win the national title.
If Kentucky can compete with Florida on a neutral court, Calipari will be able to turn the loss into a positive for his team. Showing the team it can compete with anyone on any court as it heads into the NCAA tournament is crucial for success.
Continue to Be Teammates
For the first time this season, Kentucky players looked like they cared about each other when Randle hit the game-winning shot against LSU.
Harrison tackled Randle to the ground in celebration, and the rest of the team came over and piled on top. This is something that Calipari and the coaching staff have been preaching all year. Play for each other, not for yourself.
Assistant coach John Robic recently stated on Calipari's radio show (via KentuckySportsRadio.com) that a big focus over the last couple of weeks has been to recognize good play by teammates. The coaching staff even assigned a player to a teammate on the bench to cheer for whenever they do something well in practice or games.
If Kentucky can continue to believe in playing for each other and the personal gains that come from that, the Wildcats will be a dangerous team in March.