With March Madness just a month away, Kentucky sits at No.18 in the country. The Wildcats are not where many thought they would be at this point in the year, considering they began the college basketball season as the nation’s top-ranked team. The club’s upcoming stretch, though, could determine how the squad stacks up against the national title contenders.
Through 22 games, Kentucky has gone 17-5 overall and 7-2 in the SEC. The Wildcats are as talented as any team in the NCAA, but their youth has prevented them from staying at the top of the polls. Four of the team’s top five players are freshmen. They combine to score 55.9 of the team’s 80 points per game, and will be the main reason why Kentucky has a successful or unsuccessful season.
After three months of competition at the collegiate level, John Calipari’s group may be closer to putting it all together. Kentucky has won five of its last six, and is looking to continue their streak in the coming days, which would put them in position to claim a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have two road games in four days against Mississippi State and Auburn. Both teams are near the bottom of the SEC and should be wins for Kentucky.
Following two contests with mediocre competition, Kentucky will face the best team they’ve seen all year. They’re scheduled to have a meeting at home with Florida on Feb. 15. The Gators are currently the No.3 team in the country and have a legitimate shot of landing a No.1 seed in the Field of 68. If Kentucky can get a top five win, it would improve their chance to get a high seed in March that much more.
Now is as good of a time as any for the Wildcats to play up to early season expectations. Their core is made up of first-year players, but they’ve gotten a lot of experience in a short time. Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison all have well over 640 minutes of college basketball under their belts. They are no longer freshman recently out of high school.
Randle is not only the team’s best player, but he’s been one of the top performers in the country. His 16 points per game leads the Wildcats, and only Jarnell Stokes of Tennessee averages more than his 9.9 rebounds in the SEC. The big man’s numbers have declined in conference play, but it’s an encouraging sign that the team has been able to win when he doesn’t play his best. In just Kentucky’s third game of the season, he proved what he can do against top competition, going for 27 points and 13 rebounds against then-ranked No.2 Michigan State on national television.
The biggest challenge might lie with the middle of the road scorers on the team. Andrew Harrison doesn’t need to score much more than his 11 points per game, but he’ll need to be more consistent at the point guard position. His 3.5 assists and 2.4 turnovers per game will likely need to improve. Sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress also need to step up, since they have the most experience of those that get significant playing time.
In his projected brackets for the first week for February, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Kentucky as the No.4 seed in the Midwest Region. However, there’s still five weeks until the selection committee makes its final decisions, and Kentucky could be on its way to improving their standing.