The last time Atlanta’s Georgia Dome played host to the SEC Tournament, the 2011 Kentucky men’s basketball team produced one of its best three-game stretches of the season and parlayed it into a Final Four run.
Now, that UK team finished the regular season strong while this one has limped to the finish line. But every season, there are stories of teams who rediscover their best form at tournament time. That’s the kind of story these Wildcats hope to write, but how can they make it happen?
I think the key is Kentucky’s offense and at least the Wildcats showed some meaningful improvement in the second half of that game at Florida.
A veteran-laden team like the Gators exposes Kentucky’s defensive lapses better than most opponents. The best example of that came after the Cats cut a 21-point halftime lead to six with 12 minutes remaining. Scottie Wilbekin swished a dagger of a three-point shot when the Cats misplayed a pick-and-roll situation (a play that was a key element of the scouting report, but which UK defenders struggled to execute frequently).
Defense has never been this team’s strong suit at any point this season. However, until the last two-and-a-half weeks of the season, the Wildcats ranked in or just outside the nation’s top 10 in offensive efficiency. So I looked at arguably the best stretch of the season for UK, threes games during the holiday break in which the Cats handled two conference champions and then blew out an SEC foe.
Against Belmont, Louisville (the only ranked team UK has beaten), and Mississippi State, Kentucky averaged 84 points per game and averaged getting 47 points per game in the paint. In those three contests, UK shot 59 percent on attempts inside the three-point line, averaged only 10 turnovers per game, and outscored their opponents by an average of nine points a night on second-chance points.
One of the few positives out of the thumping at Florida on Saturday was the offensive performance in the second half. UK shot 54 percent from the field, including 58 percent on two-point shots. They had only three turnovers (with four assists), outscored Florida by five on second-chance points and 28-18 on points-in-the-paint. You’ll notice that those numbers match up quite well with that late December-early January stretch.
Until Julius Randle came alive late in the first half, Kentucky was slogging through yet another sub-30 percent first half of shooting. When you miss as many shots as the Cats have been missing, you look tentative, timid or whatever other word one wants to use.
Kentucky’s best hope for having some fun in March is to keep playing offense the way it did in the second half against the Gators, while hopefully coming to a better understanding of time-and-score situations, to know the difference between good shots and bad shots. At least twice after cutting that lead to six and putting some pressure on the Gators, UK players took a shot six seconds into a possession. And there were at least four scoreless possessions when a UK player drew a crowd of defenders, only to force a bad shot rather than finding teammates who were open and should have been visible.
Dakari Johnson’s low post scoring is something to build on, as is getting Randle an opportunity to work in space more often (taking and making a few jumpers would do wonders for him in that area). During that highly-productive stretch we referenced earlier, Alex Poythress averaged nine points per game and it would be nice to see him get back to dunking as many balls as possible (he has only one during this late-season offensive slide).
I’d also love to see Dominique Hawkins spend this week shooting as many jumpers in his free time as he can. His defensive skills could really help this team, but his absence of offensive confidence leads opponents to not guard him and offenses don’t work going four on five. The shots he passes up are shots he made in carrying Madison Central to a Sweet 16 title last March.
For more of Tom’s UK sports coverage, go to www.tomleachky.com