Are the Cats Title Contenders? I Say Yes
Same story every year, right?
A Kentucky Wildcats team that is young, still learning to play D-1 Basketball, come March they will be playing their best Basketball. We've heard this so many times.... But is it possible Kentucky has already started playing their best Basketball? Is it also possible this stretch continues through March? Sure, they could and chances are will lose some games here and there, but this certainly isn't the same team that lost to Duke to start the season.
Currently, KenPom has Kentucky rated 9th overall. Some may find that a little high but the numbers do back up this placement. According to KenPom the Wildcats are 21st in the country in adjusted Offense. We've all seen their firepower they have from year to year, that's no surprise. What IS surprising is KenPom also has Kentucky are #11 in the country in Adjusted Defense. Coming from a 34 point blowout in Indianapolis against the star powered Duke Blue Devils and the game where Seton Hall star Myles Powell scored 28 points, those numbers are awfully impressive on the defensive side.
The defense starts with Guard Ashton Hagans. Hagans currently averages 2.2 Steals per game according to sports-reference. Hagans has become the Cats stopper, the guy that is there to make sure their opponents best player won't beat them and honestly he's really thrived in that role. When the Cats need a big rebound look no further than sophomore Forward PJ Washington. Although PJ is undersized, he averages 7.8 rebounds a game with 5.3 of those being defensive rebounds. Earlier this season against VMI Washington had a game where he recorded 18 rebounds. He also has four double/doubles this season.
Well sure, they play really good defense, but what about the offensive side of the ball? Look no further than Guards Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro. Herro has become a huge weapon for John Calipari and staff. Although Big Blue Nation would love to see Herro shoot a little better than 36% from 3, when he gets on a roll there is very little you can do to stop him. In the game this year against arch rival Louisville Herro was 4 for 6 from 3 with a career high 24 points.
In regards to Keldon Johnson, he's the current member of the team with the highest ceiling. The 6-6 Guard from the highly prestigious Oak Hill Academy in South Hill, Virginia currently sports a Player Efficiency Rating of 20.2 and is credited with 2.6 Win Shares this season. Maybe not Zion Williamson numbers but still very helpful with this teams success. Johnson does throw up some Donuts here and there, like against Georgia he didn't score and was 0/6 from the floor. He followed that performance up with a really nice 20 point game on the road against a very skilled Auburn team. Herro and Johnson combine to average 28.4 Points Per Game as a duo for the Cats this year.
This Cats team also plays about 8 deep with bench minutes going to Immanuel Quickley, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards. Plenty of teams have won going 7 or 8 deep in the NCAA Tournament. Hell, Calipari's 2011 Cats team played a very shallow bench and went to the Final Four.
The things they say you need to win in the NCAA Torunament. Good Defense and good Guard play. Kentucky checks those boxes. They're incredibly talented and will give any team they play in the Big Dance nightmares. But don't worry. I know BBN, although extremely passionate, loves to play the victim game. I'm sure no matter where they're placed or what seed they are, fans will find a way to say they got the toughest draw and the NCAA has it out for Coach Cal.
Tim Daniel is the Director of College Basketball Content here at the 48 Minutes Network. He is also the host of 48 Minutes and At Large Bid. If you want to discuss NBA or College Hoops with him, give him a follow.