John Calipari’s teams typically have had little difficulty racking up wins against solid competition, making their inclusion in the tournament field indisputable. However, this season has been a strange one for college hoops, and the Wildcats have not been exempted from the ludicrousness. When the when the tournament committee looks at their resume’ come Selection Sunday they will find several blemishes; namely bad home losses and scarcity of a signature wins.
The good thing about right now though, is that it is still February. There is still ample time to expunge those blotches with a quality victory or two. When the Wildcats travel to Gainsville Tuesday for a matchup with Florida, opportunity to do just that will be starting them straight in the face.
The Gators are the perfect resume-building win that Kentucky needs. Ranked 4th in the RPI, and widely considered a consensus top five squad, a win over Florida would go a long way in the eyes of the committee, especially considering that it is on the road. This is a Florida team that, before losing to Arkansas, was considered by many to be the best team in the country.
Sure they have the win in Oxford, but everyone knows the committee is never satisfied with just one signature win. A win over Florida would knock the ‘Cats off the bubble for good, barring an epic collapse in the future. Of course, the task will not be an easy one. The Gators have been a flawless 11-0 inside the confines of the O’Connell Center this season.
However, there is plausible reason to believe that the Wildcats can pull it off. Riding a five game win streak, they have quietly become the hottest team in the conference. With momentum on their side and the continuous amelioration that is taking place with each game, a win is not as asinine a prediction as one might have thought a few weeks ago.
A lot of this has to do with the recent progress being made by Kentucky’s freshmen—namely the man in the middle, Nerlens Noel. Noel has averaged 10.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.2 blocks during the Wildcats’ streak, including a record-setting 12 blocks in a road win at Mississippi. He has done so shooting an incredibly efficient 65.4% on just 5.2 attempts per contest. He could be scoring a lot more too if his free throw percentage wasn’t so darn awful. Noel is shooting 17-37 (cringe) from the stripe in the last five outings. At least he is starting to be more aggressive, though. Noel’s 37 free throw attempts in the last five games are more than half of what he had attempted prior to that (63) all season long.
Needless to say, Noel is getting it. He is the defensive anchor for Kentucky, sure, he also uses his height and length to soar for rebounds, but now that his offensive game is slowly starting to develop, he is burgeoning into the star that Kentucky lacked all season.
The Florida game will look to serve as a barometer for his development. Even if the Wildcats lose, a good showing from Noel would certainly be a positive sign for the Wildcats.
Another critical factor to the Wildcats recent success has been the play of senior Julius Mays. Transferring in from Wright State, Mays was immediately thrust into a leadership role as one of the elder players on a young team. Being new to the team, he was like the freshmen in that regard, and it took him some time to grow comfortable in his role, but now, Mays is looking as if he understands.
Over the past three games, Mays has consistently knocked down the three point shot, and has seen a huge boost in his scoring because of it. He is averaging 14.6 points on 52.6% from beyond the arc during this three-game stretch. He was especially big in an overtime victory over Texas A&M, in which he scored 19 points and hit four out of an attempted six shots from three.
Mays and Noel’s coexistence makes them a difficult matchup for opposing defenses. When Noel attacks down low, he forces the defense to cave in the paint, leaving the perimeter wide open. When Mays is hitting like he has been, it’s a lethal combination.
Of course there are other factors that may have led to the sudden surge from Kentucky, and some may claim they’ve feasted on weaker opponents—four of their last five wins have come against teams in the bottom half of the conference—but still, their improvement is noticeable. So noticeable in fact, that they have jumped back into the AP poll for the first time in several weeks, taking the 25th spot this week. Still, there are doubters.
That’s why a win Tuesday at Florida would be of immense good for this squad. They need to prove they belong there. We believe that Kentucky is a good basketball team, and we believe that they are making strides, but a win would confirm our beliefs. A win would stake a claim for first in the conference. A win would be huge.
So many times this season the Wildcats have had opportunities like this and let them slip away. Louisville, Duke, even wins against Notre Dame and Baylor would have sent a statement. Instead, they faltered. As season’s end approaches chances for signature wins are getting slimmer. Kentucky has a chance Tuesday, but will they capitalize?
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