Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats' 5 Keys to a Successful Postseason
On the eve of Kentucky's first game in the 2014 SEC tournament, which is arguably the most important SEC tournament under the tutelage of head coach John Calipari, there are still a number of factors that can determine how dangerous this team can be the rest of the season.
The Wildcats have had one of the most tumultuous regular seasons in recent memory. Starting the season ranked No. 1 in the country, they faced nonconference losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina. With the expectation of the tides turning come SEC play, the opposite happened.
Kentucky was never able to get a true signature win in conference play but did get swept by Florida and Arkansas while also losing to LSU and lowly South Carolina. Needless to say, this team has plenty of doubters heading into March Madness.
However, on the flip side, this young team can still hit its stride when it matters the most. There's no question Kentucky has the size, depth and athleticism to be a factor in March. The only question is: Can the Wildcats put it all together at once?
This slideshow will take a look at the five keys to the Kentucky success in March. Some of these points have been harped on all season, while others may be exclusive to the setup of a tournament schedule.
Dominate the Glass
There is no denying the biggest strengths of this Kentucky team are its size and ability to rebound better than almost anyone else in the country.
The Wildcats rank second in the nation in rebound margin, trailing only Quinnipiac, with a margin of 9.8 rebounds per game. They also rank fifth in the country in offensive rebounds, grabbing 14.84 per game.
This is clearly the biggest recipe for success for Kentucky in March. Once the postseason starts, games become half-court contests, with those extra possessions being even more valuable. On top of that, Kentucky is efficient in scoring quickly off rebounds. Usually, an offensive rebound is followed by a dunk for an easy two points.
Coupled with the half-court games, the officiating is expected to be called more tightly, with refs looking to call touch fouls in an effort to be rated higher by coaches. By grabbing those offensive rebounds, Kentucky can collect quick fouls in the post from opposing teams that try to swat down on the ball.
Alex Poythress: Tarzan, Not Jane
Per Draft Express, former Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith once said former star Kelenna Azubuike looked like Tarzan and played like Jane. Well, the same could be said about sophomore Alex Poythress.
He is 6'8", 240 pounds of pure muscle and has shown the ability to put anyone in the country on a poster with a thunderous dunk. However, he's also demonstrated the ability to shy away from making a play, becoming indecisive and nonexistent when Kentucky needs him the most.
Well, this is one of those times the Wildcats need Tarzan to show up and not Jane. In games where Poythress scores at least seven points, Kentucky is 11-3. He never has to lead the team in scoring, but he needs to be a threat to score.
His size and ability to finish aggressively at the rim make him a mismatch for most teams, as he can play both the small and power forward positions for Kentucky. In most cases, he's too big for opposing small forwards and too quick for power forwards.
If he shows up in March, he would provide not only another scoring option for Kentucky but valued depth. His ability to play multiple positions allows Coach Calipari to use numerous lineups throughout a game. If Poythress is active and aggressive, Kentucky's athletic dominance will show.
Life in the Fast Lane
For stretches in its last couple of games, Kentucky has looked to push the tempo offensively by getting the ball in point guard Andrew Harrison's hands and getting it up the floor quickly. This is exactly what the Wildcats need to do for the next month.
With the lack of perimeter shooting this season, Kentucky needs to prevent opposing defenses from setting up a zone. Instead, it needs to get the ball into Harrison's hands in the open space and let him do what he's best at: finish at the rim or create on the break.
With the exception of Dakari Johnson, everyone on Kentucky's roster is usually more athletic than their opponent. If all five players are running the court, it will lead to numerous fast breaks, which Kentucky needs to take advantage of.
Again, the most important thing is not letting defenses set up. Teams in the SEC have almost exclusively run zone defenses against the Wildcats, daring them to beat them from deep. In response, Kentucky has only scored more than 70 points twice in its last nine games.
Nothing but good things can come from an uptempo game for Kentucky.
A Defensively Focused Cauley-Stein
Willie Cauley-Stein could be one of the most valuable players in the country without scoring a point during a game. He's that important to Kentucky's defense.
It's not secret Kentucky has struggled on the defensive end this season. The inability to stop a pick-and-roll or a guard from penetrating will not fix itself in a week. Therefore, it's imperative that one player shows up for the month, and that's the great defensive player Cauley-Stein.
There are two different people when it comes to him. There's the one who looks like he never played basketball before and is just running from end to end, looking lost and confused. Then there's the one who protects the rim by swatting shots, altering them with his length, grabbing rebounds and steals and using his head when it comes to hedging or switching on a screen.
If the latter doesn't show up for Kentucky in March, it will be a short month for the second straight season.
Cauley-Stein doesn't need to block nine shots in one game like he has done a couple of times this year. But he needs to make his presence known by getting a couple of blocked shots and more importantly making opposing guards worry about him when they attack the rim.
Hit a Couple from Deep
James Young and Aaron Harrison came into Kentucky as heralded dead-eye shooters in high school. Both had the size to shoot over opponents, with each standing at 6'6" and having the ability to hit a shot almost anywhere in the gym.
That scouting report seems like it was written years ago, because neither has shown that ability. Young is shooting a sizzling 33 percent from behind the arc, while Harrison is stroking it at 30 percent.
To say that's not good is an understatement—especially when teams are giving them open shots and daring the two freshmen to beat them from behind the line.
Both players have shown confidence to continue to shoot the ball, even when struggling. There are obviously pros and cons to that, with the obvious con being more missed shots. However, neither has bad form, so the pro is that both of them are bound to hit a couple of shots in a row at some point this year.
Well, for Big Blue Nation, that time needs to be now. Opponents in the NCAA tournament will obviously look at tape to see what SEC teams have done to slow down Kentucky and eliminate Julius Randle in the post.
That will mean more open jumpers for Harrison and Young. While all four previous slides mentioned keys to a successful postseason, the Wildcats won't win any games if they continue to shoot the way they have.