A Closer Look At Kentucky Basketball

Kentucky faces a big week in the SEC starting tonight, with a nationally televised home game against Florida (7 PM ET, ESPN) and then a big Saturday night prime-time trip to Vanderbilt (9 PM ET, ESPN). The Wildcats are 23-1 and the only loss came at Indiana on a buzzer-beating trey. Kentucky is ranked #1 in the country and if the season ended today would clearly be the team to beat in the NCAA Tournament. With a big week foreshadowing the crunch of the SEC schedule, TheSportsNotebook breaks down Kentucky piece-by-piece.

John Calipari’s team faced four significant non-conference tests and went 3-1. They knocked off Kansas, North Carolina and Louisville, and had the loss to Indiana. The ‘Cats haven’t really been tested in the SEC, but not because the conference isn’t good. The schedule is just backloaded. They still play Vandy and Florida again after this week, including a season-ending showdown in Gainesville on March 4. And there’s a February 21 trip to Mississippi State looming. Calipari relies on six players getting the lion’s chunk of minutes. Here’s the rundown…

Marquis Teague (6’2” freshman, 10 ppg, 4 apg): As the point guard on a team with good scorers I’d like to see Teague’s assist numbers come up—by comparison, North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall averages close to 10 a game. In fairness, Teague is a better scorer, so he doesn’t have to hit double-digit assists, but I think UK would run for efficiently if he was about around seven a night. Teague is a respectable shooter from the floor, though lacks range on the three-ball.

Darius Miller (6’8” senior, 10 ppg): What I want to know is how a guy 6’8” and presumably mismatched against most guards, can sneak in from the wings and get 5-6 rebounds a game? Miller was a non-factor against Kansas, Louisville and Indiana and only close to his average against North Carolina, so we have to wonder how he’ll fare against really good competition. And Florida and Vandy both have good backcourt play.

Doron Lamb (6’4” soph, 14 ppg): Lamb is the best three-point shooter on this team, hitting 48 percent from behind the arc. Picking up on what I was saying about Teague improving his assists, it would be nice to see situations of Teague taking a man off the dribble and kicking it to Lamb for the three. The sophomore has been there in big games, averaging 15 ppg in the four key non-conference tests.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (6’7” frosh, 13 ppg, 8 rbg): This kid’s a stud. Gilchrist not only hits the boards, but he’s stepped it up in the biggest games. He grabbed nine boards against both Kansas and Indiana. Against the trees of North Carolina, he pulled down 11. And he buried Louisville inside for 19 rebounds. That’s the kind of work that bails you out in the inevitable big game you have to win when the shots aren’t falling. Oh, and his scoring? In these same four games, Kidd-Gilchrist is averaging over 15 a game. He’s beating his season-long averages against the opponents who should theoretically be pulling those numbers down. I suppose that begs the question of where he is the other nights, but let’s not rain on the parade today.

Terrence Jones (6’9” sophomore, 13 ppg, 7 rbg): Jones has been a good foil for Kidd-Gilchrist, with stats mostly equivalent. Jones isn’t as dominant as his freshman counterpart against the nation’s elite, but nor has he been absent. Jones had good games against Kansas and UNC, while playing poorly against Indiana and Louisville. What way he swings will be a factor in these five key SEC games down the stretch.

Anthony Davis (6’10” freshman, 14 ppg, 10 rbg): Now this is the kind of work from your center that wins national championships. Davis is also a shotblocking threat, in addition to his low-post scoring and rebounding. He blocked seven shots against Kansas, and hit the boards against Carolina, Louisville and Indiana. The one thing he doesn’t have is Kidd-Gilchrist’s ability to raise his game against the best competition—or at least, we haven’t seen it based on the four best case studies we have. But on the flip side, he still gets right around his season averages, and he’s steady on the nights the national TV spotlight is absent.

That’s the core personnel that John Calipari will rely on to hold off the dogs in this SEC race and ultimately to win him his first national championship and the school’s first since 1998. I really like the way this team is put together. They’ve got the outside shooter in Lamb, they’ve got an outstanding front line and they’ve got a guy in Kidd-Gilchrist who can go crazy when faced with tests from the top teams. Teague’s improvement as a playmaker will be important down the stretch, but even here I like the odds of the freshman settling into the role as the season hits its crunch point.

There was a time when you couldn’t even consider picking a team with three freshmen and two sophomores in its top six to win a national championship. I’ve still got five weeks to decide if that’s what I want to do with Kentucky. What I do know right now is that nobody’s more complete. I think they will likely lose at least one of these five big SEC games coming up, but they’ll win the regular season title that eluded them a year ago at the hands of Florida. The changing of the guard starts tonight in Rupp.