Kentucky Basketball: Top Storylines to Follow in Remainder of Regular Season
We are heading toward the home stretch of the 2015-16 season for the Kentucky Wildcats. There are seven regular-season games remaining before the postseason, and the pressure continues to mount.
Whether you have followed all along or are just tuning in, there is plenty to watch for in the coming weeks.
The Wildcats continue to struggle with consistency, looking dominant in one outing before falling short one game later. They haven't had a winning streak longer than three games since November, and there are many doubts about how deep of a run this squad can make in the NCAA tournament.
Regardless of what has been accomplished to this point, however, the story of this season will be written over the next two months.
Beyond just wins and losses, here is a look at the specific storylines to watch for as the year draws to a close.
Development of Freshmen
This is nothing new for Kentucky, a program that always depends on elite freshmen making an impact before moving on to the next level.
Unfortunately, it has taken a little longer for some members of this class to reach their potential.
Jamal Murray was clearly the most advanced of the 2015 recruits, immediately becoming a go-to option offensively. Still, you could see plenty of improvement as the year progressed when it comes to shooting, ball-handling and, most importantly, decision-making.
On the other end of the spectrum is Skal Labissiere, who was the prize of the class but has been nothing short of a disappointment with averages of just 7.0 points and 2.9 rebounds per game. The good news is he continues to show flashes of his ability on both ends of the court. He can make jumpers and block shots, and he is improving his awareness on the court.
The continued development of these players—along with Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews and Isaac Humphries—will be a major storyline down the stretch.
Kentucky has the talent to feature one of the top defenses in college basketball. The team has length, quickness and athleticism to make almost every opposing shot difficult.
According to KenPom.com, opponents have an effective field-goal percentage of 44.4, the 15th-best defensive mark in the country. However, the defense as a whole doesn't live up to its potential because of the constant unnecessary fouling.
Opposing teams get 25.1 percent of their points against Kentucky from the free-throw line, the 17th-worst mark in college basketball. The Wildcats are simply making it too easy for opposing teams to get points.
Perhaps more important than the free throws is the foul trouble the frontcourt gets in almost every game.
Alex Poythress—who is out about two weeks with a knee injury, per ESPN.com—has fouled out four times this year, all of them ending up as Kentucky losses. Labissiere and Marcus Lee also struggle to play defense without fouling, averaging over three fouls per game despite seeing reduced minutes.
It's hard to contribute if you can't stay on the floor, and these players have really hurt the team with their fouls. This has to improve over the final month of the year.
Kentucky hasn't been the deepest team during the 2015-16 season. Most games feature the three starting guards playing well over 30 minutes, four bigs rotating in and out of the lineup and maybe some minutes for Charles Matthews.
It's unclear if fatigue has been a major issue, but poor shooting for much of the year and squandered late leads certainly could be telling. The Wildcats are just 2-5 this season in games decided by 10 or fewer points.
In the past few games, however, Calipari has lengthened his rotation with more players getting involved. Even with Poythress on the sidelines, nine different players totaled at least 10 minutes in the win over Georgia. That is the first time this happened all season.
Players like Matthews, Humphries, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder aren't likely to win many games on their own, but giving them an opportunity to spell the starters can lead to greater team success down the line.
Poor three-point shooting was one of the biggest themes of the beginning of the season. No one outside of Murray could make shots, which led to a one-dimensional offense that could easily go through scoring droughts.
This has changed dramatically in recent weeks.
Murray is still hitting shots, but so are Tyler Ulis and Derek Willis, the latter finally getting playing time after spending most of the first couple of months on the bench. All of a sudden, the team is hitting 37.6 percent of three-point shots in SEC play after making just 30.7 percent in nonconference play.
Not only does this make an immediate impact on the offense with the extra points, it also spreads out defenses and creates more openings in the paint, where Kentucky is at its best.
If this continues, it could make the Wildcats a serious threat offensively in the postseason.
The past two dominant wins over Florida and Georgia were certainly encouraging, as were the earlier victories against Vanderbilt and Missouri. The problem? All of them took place at Rupp Arena.
This young team has not been quite as successful in true road games this year, losing recently to Tennessee and Kansas. An overtime loss at Allen Fieldhouse isn't cause for concern, but the Volunteers aren't the type of team that's supposed to pull away from Kentucky late.
The same can be said about Auburn and even LSU and UCLA.
Altogether, Kentucky is just 2-5 in true road games this year with the wins coming against Alabama and Arkansas. Things will also get much tougher with trips to South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida still on the schedule, four teams currently in the top half of the SEC standings.
Winning on the road is never easy in college basketball, especially in conference, but if the Wildcats have any dreams of taking home another SEC title, they will need to figure out how to stay focused in a hostile environment.
Otherwise, this will end up being just another average year for a once-promising team.
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