Kentucky jumped back into the top five in the AP Poll this week, after a dominant victory at Kansas on Saturday. John Calipari’s Wildcats are peaking at the right time, and they are back among the teams favored to make a big run in March. The win over the Jayhawks in the SEC-Big 12 challenge was a warning shot to the rest of the country. When this team plays together and at the level they did on Saturday, they can beat anyone in the country.
Calipari’s Wildcats Back Among Nation’s Elite
This team started the season ranked at number 10, but it was unclear how all the new parts would mesh. Calipari’s Wildcats were made up of a few experienced returners, a couple of veteran transfers, and the usual high-ranking freshmen class. The balance this team has in its roster makeup is proving to be a good combination. Kentucky has five guys scoring between eight and 16 points. Among those players are three transfers, a freshman, and two returners from last season. Calipari has done an excellent job molding this team and figuring out how each player can help. Defining roles for players is good, but it only works when the players buy in to the roles they are given. This group is doing just that.
Board Man Gets Paid
The biggest difference in this year’s Kentucky team to those of the past few seasons is the presence of a dominant force in the paint. Oscar Tshiebwe has been excellent all year for Big Blue Nation. His toughness, effort, and relentless pursuit of the ball has permeated through this entire team. He is a rebounding machine. The junior forward has more games with 20+ rebounds than he does with single-digit rebounds. That consistency and production is absurd. The transfer from West Virginia is also Kentucky’s leading scorer and is shooting 61% from the field. His physicality and toughness are tough to match, especially on the college level. Combining that with his effort level and it’s not surprising how productive he has been. His strength combined with Keion Brooks athleticism and energy makes the Kentucky frontcourt a tough one to match up with.
Calapari’s Wildcats have been most successful during his tenure when they get high level point guard play. From John Wall to Tyler Ulis to De’Aaron Fox to Ashton Hagans, the line of talented guards in Kentucky’s recent history is extensive. This season he has two skilled lead guards to run his offense. Their alternating styles help keep the Wildcats from becoming stagnant or predictable. Sahvir Wheeler leads the SEC in assists at nearly seven a game. The 5’10” junior has excellent vision and feel for the game and is a good enough scorer to keep defenses off balance. He also led the league in assists a season ago playing for Georgia. He is another of Kentucky’s impact transfers this season.
Freshman TyTy Washington brings an explosiveness to the backcourt. He was one of the top 15 recruits in the 2021 class and has not disappointed. He went down with a leg injury in the loss at Auburn, and his absence was noticeable to how the rest of that game played out. The Arizona native has four 20-point games this season. He also has an eye-popping 17 assists in a victory over Georgia early in January. His importance cannot be overstated, Kentucky is just 3-4 in games where he hasn’t scored in double figures. When Washington and Wheeler are attacking the paint, it opens the floor for Davion Mintz and Kellan Grady to get open perimeter shots.
The key for this team is that the players continue to buy in to the roles they have been given. This is the highest-scoring team in the SEC, and they spread the wealth up and down the roster. Seven different players have led Calipari’s Wildcats in scoring this season. This isn’t his best defensive team, but they counteract that by being so effective on the glass. Tshiebwe’s dominance on the boards is a big reason for that. The two lead guards are a big reason why this team ranks second in the SEC and 13th nationally in assists.
Unselfish play on offense, toughness and effort on the glass, and a buy-in to the roles defined for each player have this Kentucky team primed for a deep run in March. That’s still a long way away, with 10 conference games remaining. Maintaining the momentum Saturday’s win brings and improving each game is the focus for now. However, the statement they made in Lawrence, KS was a loud one, and the rest of the country is starting to realize how good this group can be.
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