Kentucky Basketball: 5 Questions for Wildcats' Home Stretch in SEC Play

Bobby ReaganFeatured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2014

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Questions for Wildcats' Home Stretch in SEC Play

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    With 27 games in the book for the 2013-14 season for Kentucky basketball, it could be argued there are as many questions to this team as when the season started. Kentucky currently sits at 21-6 and 11-3 in SEC play with a No. 17 national ranking and a shoe-in for the NCAA tournament. 

    However, what kind of team is Kentucky? The Wildcats entered the season with national title expectations and a chance to make a run at a 40-0 season. However, with a roster full of freshmen and sophomores, the Wildcats experienced growing pains throughout the season.

    Is a national title run still in the cards for Kentucky? It wouldn't be a shock to see the Wildcats raise a ninth banner. With just a couple regular-season games left, we'll take a look at the five burning questions that will be asked over the last four games for Kentucky. 

Was LSU the Turning Point for the Season?

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Sure, Kentucky struggled at home against a LSU team that it should have beaten quite easily. However, it took a dramatic shot late in overtime by Julius Randle for Kentucky to squeak away with a one-point victory over LSU.

    It was arguably the first game all season Kentucky showed grit and the ability to not fold when the game wasn't easy for it. The Wildcats didn't fold under pressure and each player contributed down the stretch of regulation and in overtime. Andrew Harrison hit free throws with 10 seconds to go in regulation to tie the game. James Young pitched in six points in overtime while Randle hit the game-winner while also playing suffocating defense on Johnny O'Bryant.

    More importantly, this was the first game all season the Wildcats looked like a team. They picked each other up off the floor and tackled Randle to the ground when the game was over. They celebrated like a team and looked like they were playing for each other rather than for individual glory. 

    Could this be the game that propels Kentucky in March? It very well could be the point in the season fans look back on at saying this is the rallying point. 

Can Kentucky Compete with Florida Away from Rupp?

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Kentucky proved it can compete and outplay Florida at Rupp Arena. However, Kentucky has also showed it can struggle on the road against all types of teams. 

    The Wildcats have lost road and neutral games to Michigan State, Baylor, North Carolina, Arkansas and LSU this season. Despite being better than a couple of those teams, the Wildcats showed they can give in to hostile fans and not play the type of the game that they are accustomed to. 

    With a guaranteed road game at Florida and a possible neutral-site game against the Gators in the SEC Championship Game, Kentucky needs to show it can compete with the nation's No. 1 team in the nation away from Rupp Arena.

    The Wildcats don't have to necessarily win either game against Florida, but they can't get blown out. They need to exchange punches with the Gators and continue to grow as a team, so when the NCAA tournament rolls around, they have the confidence to compete with any team in the country. 

Will the New Alex Poythress Return?

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    As Eminem once asked, "will the real Alex Poythress please stand up?" After an up-and-down freshman season, Poythress returned to Lexington, Ky., for his sophomore year and was expected to show signs of improvement. 

    Well, he started that way, averaging over eight points and 10 rebounds in Kentucky's first three games of the season. He then reverted to his old ways of disappearing in games and not looking to attack and take advantage of his size and athleticism. 

    However, once conference play started the new Poythress returned, as he became a human dunk machine while being a force both offensively and defensively for Kentucky. He scored in double digits six of the first nine SEC games while also being a defense stalwart.

    But, much like his career, he's tapered off since then. He's scored over 10 points just once since then and looked like he completely lost his confidence on the court. 

    Kentucky needs Poythress to play like he's shown he's capable of this season. The sophomore has taken on a Darius Miller-type role by being the veteran off the bench and providing valuable leadership while being a versatile player for Kentucky.

     

Is Zone Defense the Answer?

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    For the first time under John Calipari's tutelage, the 2013-14 version of Kentucky's basketball team played a zone defense. Calipari has always been a great man-to-man defensive coach, usually utilizing his team's athleticism and size to disrupt opponents' offensive sets.

    However, this year's version of Kentucky has shockingly struggled defensively. Too often the Wildcats give up easy baskets whether it's in transition defense or trying to defend a pick-and-roll. Kentucky was getting burned and caused Calipari stress and timeouts. 

    Calipari recently called the zone a good change and a good defense for Kentucky to use as it has practiced it everyday. Kentucky's coach also gave recognition to Aaron Harrison and Jarrod Polson as players who are benefiting from playing the zone.

    It's always a good idea heading into March to have multiple defenses making it tougher for NCAA tournament opponents to make a game plan. The Wildcats need to continue to perfect their zone as a way to play if there's foul trouble or any mismatches. 

Is Kentucky a True Title Contender?

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Kentucky was expected to be the favorite to win it all just a few months ago. Now, the Wildcats are expected to be somewhere between a No. 3 and No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. 

    Kentucky only has one great win on its resume, when the Wildcats defeated archrival Louisville in December. It hasn't been able to secure important wins away from Rupp Arena, something that is expected to be taken into account by the selection committee. 

    More importantly, will Kentucky grow enough over the last four regular-season games to be a serious contender in March? The Wildcats have the star in Julius Randle, a point guard in Andrew Harrison who is developing his game with each passing day and size that no one else in the country can match.

    Winning in March is based on matchups. This team can make a run similar to the 2010-11 Kentucky team, which was a No. 4 team but made a run to the Final Four. The Wildcats were able to make their run due to matchups, and this team can do the same.