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Kentucky Basketball: 5 Things Wildcats Must Prove in Conference Play

Rob GoldbergFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 7, 2017

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Things Wildcats Must Prove in Conference Play

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    Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

    Kentucky has played well for most of the 2015-16 season, but an SEC title is far from guaranteed. There are still plenty of question marks as the team continues its conference schedule.

    The 11-2 Wildcats' season has featured plenty of highs and lows already, including impressive wins over Duke and Louisville as well as disappointing losses to Ohio State and UCLA. This squad doesn't have the talent it did last year, although there are still plenty of future NBA contributors on this roster.

    In order for Kentucky to reach its goals at the conference and national level, many of the early doubts need to be answered over the next couple of months.

    There have been a lot of positives to this point of the season, but here are some things the Wildcats need to prove going forward.

Aggressive Defense Can Continue

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    After some lazy play on the defensive end at times this year, Kentucky picked it up in a big way against Louisville. Not only were the Cardinals held to just 42.9 percent shooting, including 4-of-14 from three-point range, they also turned it over 15 times with only eight assists.

    This aggressive approach was once again seen in the conference-opening win over Ole Miss, which finished with just seven assists and 16 turnovers.

    Few teams are going to be able to win games when the passing lanes are closed like this.

    Head coach John Calipari has excelled in his career by leading teams with great defenses. This group has the potential to be elite thanks to its quickness on the perimeter and length in the post, but the key will be to play with high intensity every game.

    The Wildcats have shown over the past two games that it is possible. They just have to keep playing at this level.

Shooting Won't Be a Problem

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Kentucky's shooting has been inconsistent at best, but the key is proving it won't be an issue against tougher opponents.

    Sure, the Wildcats lit it up from deep against Louisville by hitting 11 of 23 three-pointers (47.8 percent). The problem is they have hit just 31.3 percent from beyond the arc for the season, ranking 282nd in the country.

    Tyler Ulis seemed to turn things around by going 4-of-7 in the win over the Cardinals, but he followed that up with just a 1-of-6 mark against Ole Miss. He has made just 28.8 percent of his three-point attempts this season.

    There is obviously more shooting talent on this team than what has been displayed so far, but aside from Jamal Murray, no one can be trusted.

    It's certainly possible for this team to remain successful even without making shots. The players have shown their knack for driving into the lane and finishing at the rim all year long. The key is for them to beat an elite opponent without what could now be considered a "fluky" shooting day.

    Poor shooting is a problem, but the Wildcats can prove this isn't an issue with some more strong play during the course of the SEC season.

Guards Can Handle Workload

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Kentucky has gone to a three-guard system because John Calipari knows Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray are by far the three best backcourt players on the roster.

    The three of them on the floor together gives the squad the best chance to win.

    The problem is the Wildcats might be too reliant on these three players. All three finished with at least 35 minutes in the dominant win over Ole Miss and each is averaging over 30 per game this season. Ulis might have even forgotten how to sit down after playing at least 38 minutes in six straight games.

    While AAU and other programs have led to young players being more able to handle the grind of college basketball than ever before, it's still important to remember this is new for all of them. Briscoe and Murray were in high school last season and Ulis spent a lot of time on the bench in a platoon behind Andrew Harrison.

    As the year continues and the games get more physical in the SEC than in nonconference play, the talented trio has to prove it can handle all this playing time and not get worn down late in the season.

Jamal Murray Plays Within Himself

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    There is no doubting Jamal Murray's basketball ability. He will almost certainly be an NBA lottery pick as a slashing guard who can score almost at will. The problem so far has been his lack of control on the court.

    Murray remains Kentucky's leading scorer for the season at 16.8 points per game, but he has done this with a shooting percentage of just 40.3. Over the last two games, he is shooting just 32.3 percent from the field and has more field-goal attempts (31) than points (30).

    One of the other problems has been turnovers, with Murray averaging 3.2 per game. He had seven against Louisville and has lost the ball at least twice in 12 of his 13 games this season.

    The Wildcats need the guard to be aggressive and remain a go-to scorer on the perimeter, but turnovers and bad shots don't help anyone. Although some of the problems are freshman mistakes, he needs to prove he can be a more efficient player during the SEC season.

Skal Labissiere Can Be a Factor

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It's easy to say Skal Labissiere has been a disappointment since joining the Wildcats. The freshman is currently averaging just 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game after coming in as the No. 2-ranked player in the 2015 recruiting class, per 247Sports.

    Over the last four games, Labissiere is averaging just 3.3 points and 2.8 rebounds in 14.5 minutes per game. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress have taken over the starting spots in the frontcourt, and neither appears likely to give up his spot any time soon.

    Despite all of these issues, the center still has plenty of talent that could be valuable in the future.

    He is a quality inside scorer with his back to the basket when given a chance while he has also shown plenty of ability as a rim protector on defense. These skills are incredibly useful for a team expecting to win every game.

    While some fans have likely already given up on Labissiere, Kentucky needs him to contribute and be a bigger factor in the second half of the season. He needs to prove he can play at this level for the Wildcats to reach their potential.

     

    Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for more year-round sports analysis.

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