Kentucky Basketball: 5 Questions for Wildcats in 2014 NCAA Tournament
To say there are a couple of questions about this Kentucky team a day before its first game in the NCAA tournament against Kansas State on Friday is a gross understatement.
The 2013-14 regular season was marred by inconsistent play mixed in with a couple of bad losses such as a home loss to Arkansas and falling to lowly South Carolina. However, there have been some bright spots, including a recent run to the SEC championship game before a last-second turnover by James Young helped Florida seal a one-point win.
This slideshow will take a look at the five biggest questions surrounding the Wildcats in the 2014 NCAA tournament. Some of these can be at an individual level while some will take a broader look at the team.
Can Andrew Harrison Continue to Assist?
There's no coincidence that the best Kentucky has looked went hand-in-hand with Andrew Harrison setting season-highs in assists. In the first two games of the SEC tournament he racked up eight assists against LSU and followed that up with nine dimes against Georgia.
It's been touched on numerous times throughout the season but Harrison is a unique player. With a combination of size, standing at 6'6" and the ability to handle the ball so well he can often be a defensive nightmare for opponents. He also has a ton of talent around him, that he has to keep happy by getting the ball in their hands.
The question is whether it took this long in the season for it to all click for Harrison or was the SEC tournament just a flash in the pan. He needs to continue to look to get his teammates open shots by getting into the lane, drawing more attention from the defense then kicking the ball to the open teammate instead of making a difficult pass.
Are They Looking Ahead?
Almost everyone in America is looking forward to a Kentucky-Wichita State round-of-32 matchup. Can the team who was expected to make a run at 40-0 upend the team who enters the NCAA tournament undefeated.
There's one problem with that theory. Kentucky has to beat Kansas State to get to that game.
With all the talk about the possible matchup against the Shockers, can a young team stay focused to defeat a team in Kansas State, that the Wildcats are expected to beat?
Luckily for Kentucky, the game is late on Friday so there has been plenty of time to prepare for Kansas State. There's no doubt that Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his staff has been hammering this idea during practices as well.
Are the Ties Too Tight?
One of the reasons Kentucky might be fine about not looking forward to the Wichita State matchup is the personal ties to players on Kansas State's roster.
Specifically the close friendship between Andrew and Aaron Harrison on Kentucky and Wesley Iwundu on Kansas State. The three players go back as far as second grade with each other and played on the same AAU team since the third grade.
Kansas State star freshman Marcus Foster also has ties to the Harrison twins and Julius Randle for Kentucky. Foster, also from Texas, played in the AAU circuit against the three Kentucky stars.
While wanting to beat their friends and people they grew up playing against will help Kentucky to not look forward to the round of 32, the flip side could be will they want to do too much. Will the Harrison's start to press, forcing shots trying to get early buckets? Will Julius Randle try to bully his way into the post only to turn the ball over?
Will Willie Be Invested?
Arguably the most important person in the NCAA tournament will be Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein. His size and athleticism makes him a difference maker especially on the defensive side of the ball and rebounding.
The question is what Willie Cauley-Stein will show up for the NCAA tournament? Part of his personality is being a very carefree person, which sometimes carries over to the court. There are games when Cauley-Stein doesn't look like someone who wants to step foot on the court let alone compete at a high level. During these games he often looks lost and like he's still learning the game.
Then there are those other games where Cauley-Stein looks like a projected NBA lottery pick and one of the best defenders in the nation. He's active defensively, deflecting passes and altering shots at the rim. He's crashing the glass and finishing at the rim with authority. He doesn't play soft and sometimes he picks up fouls but they are all hustle fouls, something the Kentucky coaching staff can live with.
Kentucky needs that Cauley-Stein to have a presence in the NCAA tournament if the Wildcats want to advance.
Will Julius Randle Be Patient?
There's no reason to not expect teams in the NCAA tournament to follow the trend of what SEC teams did to Kentucky this season. More specifically, what they did to Julius Randle.
Teams attempted to take Randle away offensively. Anytime Randle touched the ball in the post, teams would swarm him with double teams, hoping he'd get frustrated and try to force a bad shot or draw a charge with Randle going out of control.
Toward the end of the season Randle started to develop more trust in his teammates and patience with himself. Earlier this year Randle would often get frustrated about not getting his shots up or not getting enough touches when defenses were keying in on him. Once this happened it was almost a guarantee the next time he touched the ball he would attempt a shot regardless of how it would happen.
It's vital that Randle continues to keep his composure during the NCAA tournament. Teams are going to continue to put the pressure on him once he touches the ball. He needs to continue to trust his teammates and work the offensive glass for easy points.
Randle will get his touches and looks. It's just how hard is he willing to work for them and how patient is he willing to be for those looks to develop.