Kentucky Basketball: Biggest Focal Point for Each Wildcats Rotation Player
The Kentucky Wildcats are peaking at the right time, and once again appear to be realistic national title contenders. In order for this to happen, however, every player has to take care of business on an individual level.
With five wins in the last six games, the squad has moved into the driver's seat in the SEC, and it is now on track for a quality seed in the NCAA tournament. When it is playing at its best, Kentucky has the talent to beat just about anyone in the nation.
Of course, it won't take every player performing at an All-American level in order to keep winning. Those who step on the court only have to make sure they do their job to the best of their ability. Sometimes, this only means filling a small role or focusing on one important aspect.
Here is a look at a focal point for each player as we head into the home stretch of the 2015-16 season.
Tyler Ulis is obviously a great scorer as evidenced by his 19 points per game in SEC play, but the Wildcats are at their best when the sophomore excels as a true point guard. His passing ability is what helps turn this good team into being great.
Over the last six games, Ulis has been as good as ever with an incredible average of 10.2 assists and just 1.7 turnovers per game. A more than 6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is almost an unheard of level of production that would easily lead the nation over the course of a full season.
Unsurprisingly, these have been some of Kentucky's best games of the year. In this stretch, the squad has five wins by an average of 23 points and only one loss, which came in overtime on the road against Texas A&M. Ulis had four turnovers in the defeat—one short of a season high.
The 5'9" point guard has become one of the nation's best passers, and when he shows this ability off, Kentucky is almost unstoppable offensively.
There is no nice way to put it: Isaiah Briscoe has been awful at the free-throw line this season.
The freshman guard is shooting 41.2 percent from the charity stripe and doesn't seem to be improving much as the season progresses. This could seriously end up hurting the team in the postseason.
While Briscoe has struggled with his three-point shooting as well, this is less of an issue because you can just avoid taking jump shots. The guard has done a good job attacking the basket and working toward his strength, although this often leads to more contact and more time at the line. This has led to nothing more than embarrassment.
Whether it is a mental or physical problem at this point, it will be hard to justify keeping him on the floor late in close games if something doesn't change.
As good as Ulis has been over the past six games, Jamal Murray might be even better. He is averaging 26.2 points per game, with at least 20 points in seven straight contests, proving to be one of the nation's top pure scorers.
Guard play is a big help in the NCAA tournament, and a red-hot scorer like Murray could take this team a long way.
With that said, the way he gets points is important. The freshman has never been short on confidence, which means when the shots aren't falling, he is going to keep shooting, leading to what has sometimes been an inefficient form of getting buckets.
During the recent six-game stretch, Murray is averaging 1.6 points per shot attempt. In the six games prior he had just 1.06 points per attempt. The team went just 3-3 during those games.
Murray has to continue not only scoring at a high rate but also avoiding bad shots to keep his efficiency as high as possible.
Protecting the Rim
Whether he is starting or coming off the bench, Marcus Lee is on the floor to fill two categories: blocked shots and offensive rebounds.
While Lee does a great job of attacking the boards, his rim protection might be even more valuable going forward. Kentucky is undersized both in the backcourt and in the frontcourt, especially with Skal Labissiere seeing reduced minutes. Lee is the only one left capable of making opposing shots difficult.
With the junior's ability to reject and alter shots, the guards can be more aggressive on the perimeter because they know Lee has their back in the post. This is the strategy that helped Kentucky defensively last season, and it will be the key to success this year.
After scoring 14 points in 17 minutes Tuesday, it seems likely Alex Poythress will be back in the starting lineup by next game. When healthy, he is the team's best interior scorer while bringing the type of intensity often missing when he is on the bench.
The problems have come from the fact he is unable to stay on the court due to foul trouble in key games. The senior has fouled out four times this year, all of which ended up being Kentucky losses. The matchups against UCLA and Tennessee were especially disappointing, as Poythress couldn't even play 20 minutes before fouling out, ruining winnable games for the Wildcats.
Despite Kentucky's strong play in recent weeks, Poythress is a major part of the team's success, and he needs to be on the floor as much as possible. That will not happen until he learns how to defend without picking up fouls.
Derek Willis: Getting Healthy
In an official medical diagnosis, Derek Willis' ankle was difficult to look at. It is unclear how long the forward will be out after suffering the injury against Texas A&M, but what we do know is Kentucky needs him back as soon as possible.
Willis was overlooked earlier in the season, but the Wildcats were a much-better team with him on the floor, thanks mostly to his ability to spread things out on offense with his outside shooting. He has made 43.9 percent of his shots from three-point range this year, and this team can't afford to lose this ability for too long.
Skal Labissiere: Rebound!
A potential NBA lottery pick who can block shots and hit a 10-foot jumper still can't see the floor, most recently losing minutes to Isaac Humphries. Why? Because Skal Labissiere has been embarrassing as a rebounder this year.
According to KenPom.com, the freshman has only brought in 12.2 percent of defensive rebounds this year, which ranks seventh on the team. Briscoe and Mychal Mulder do a better job of getting boards on that end of the court.
His lack of positioning, focus and intensity have been an issue, but all are correctable for him to be useful over the next few weeks.
Isaac Humphries: Post Defense
Humphries has seen an increase of playing time over the past few games, and it hasn't been just due to injuries. The reality is the freshman brings the type of size to the post that no one else on the roster possesses.
At 7'0", 260 pounds, Humphries won't get pushed around down low. He now needs to use this size to keep opponents out of the paint and help improve the overall frontcourt defense.
Charles Matthews: Energy
There hasn't been a lot of depth in the backcourt this season, but Charles Matthews has filled his role as a high-energy player off the bench who can give Murray or Briscoe some much-needed rest during games.
Although Matthews won't light up the scoreboard, he has been a good defender, keeping opponents from taking advantage of the second unit. His presence will be especially valuable with the short turnaround between games in the postseason.
Dominique Hawkins: Outside Shooting
With Willis on the sideline, Kentucky is left with few options from behind the arc. Murray is an elite shooter, but Ulis is inconsistent, and the rest of the lineup barely needs to be guarded from the outside. This could lead to packed in defenses and possibly a triangle-and-two zone that could limit the Wildcats offensively.
This means when Dominique Hawkins steps on the floor, he needs to step up as a shooter and keep defenses honest.
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