Kentucky Wildcats' Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Tournament
Heading into the NCAA tournament, Kentucky has some decent momentum. It played two of its best games all season in the SEC tournament against LSU and Georgia and then barely missed out on a furious comeback against Florida in the title game.
So now that the brackets have been released and Kentucky's road to the Final Four has been laid out, what are the keys to the Cats pulling everything together and making a legitimate run? And how do they stack up against their first-round matchup?
You've got the questions, I've got the answers. Let's get into it.
Get Production out of Your "Veterans"
Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress have not exactly been the picture of consistency this season. They each have come up big for stretches of time, but they also have a penchant for totally disappearing for entire games.
But for Kentucky to have a chance to win the Big Dance, it is going to need a solid performance or two from at least one of these guys.
When he is on, Cauley-Stein looks like a top-five draft pick who can individually dominate a game on the defensive end. At his best, Poythress injects an energy into the team, grabbing offensive boards and rising up for game-changing dunks.
The Wildcats have found ways to win without either sophomore having a big game, but they're not going to get that lucky all tournament.
Make Easy Buckets
One thing that has been driving me nuts about Kentucky recently is its inability to finish close to the basket. As Matt Jones of KentuckySportsRadio.com points out, the Wildcats may just lead the country in missed layups.
It doesn't hurt them as much as you might think, considering they get offensive rebounds at an astounding clip, which masks the damage done by missing gimmes. These easy misses are the result of a lack of focus. When the Cats are locked in, they make those buckets.
For Kentucky to make a true run at a championship, it can't miss easy opportunities. It has to put the ball in the basket. Man cannot live on putbacks alone.
Julius Randle, the main offender, still manages to dominate a game even with those misses. Just imagine how this team would look if he bears down and starts finishing like he knows how to.
Get the Harrison Twins Going
It's no secret that Andrew and Aaron Harrison have not exactly been as good as advertised. The No. 1 ranked PG and SG, respectively, coming into the season have had an up-and-down year. But Kentucky is at its best when these guys are on the up.
Over the first two games of the SEC tournament, when the Wildcats have played arguably their best ball all year, the Harrison twins have combined for 29.5 PPG and 10.5 APG. Compare that with the 24.6 PPG and 5.9 APG they combined for during the whole of the season.
The assist numbers really jump out at you. Andrew in particular has really raised his game lately. Even if he's not scoring (though he really is a good scoring PG), that means he's getting involved and affecting the game in other ways.
Make Free Throws
I know this is a little bit like asking a tiger to change his stripes. Kentucky has been a terrible free throw-shooting team all year.
The Wildcats are shooting 67.8 percent from the stripe. Both of the Calipari-helmed Kentucky teams that went to the Final Four all shot above 70 percent on their free throws.
It's even more important this season with the new hand-check rules in place. The Cats have shot over 1,000 FTs. A huge part of their game is getting to the line, and in tournament play, it's going to be an even bigger deal with the pressure on.
UK doesn't all of a sudden need to become a team of Steve Nash's, but it's going to have to shoot a better percentage than it has been if it's going to win six straight games in the tournament.
Look, this is Kentucky basketball. It's serious. These guys came in with the weight of the world on their shoulders and have often wilted under the enormous expectations. It's showed on their faces.
But in the SEC tournament, after the infamous Calipari "tweak" that nobody seems to know what it exactly was, there has been a change with this group. They're having, dare I say, fun? And when they are having fun, they have been dominating.
It's not easy to play loose in the NCAA tournament. One loss and you're out. But these Wildcats don't play well when they are tight. If they can keep whatever momentum they got from the SEC tournament and go out and have a good time, they will be a force to be reckoned with.
Beat Kansas State
The first step to winning a championship is to win the first game. Now that we know Kentucky will be facing off against Kansas State in the first round, we can at least look ahead that far.
UK gets Kansas State on a bit of a skid. K-State has lost three in a row. But prior to that, it had beat the past three ranked teams it played, including Kansas. The team is also led by a freshman, Marcus Foster, who averages 15.6 PPG.
However, Kansas State is not a great rebounding team, so Kentucky should have a distinct advantage there. If Kentucky can dominate the boards and do a decent job on defense, it should be able to make it to a second-round matchup against Wichita State that will be heavily anticipated.