John Calipari’s 2016-17 Kentucky Wildcats are more fun than Disney World.
The go-go Cats are averaging 94.2 points per game. No Kentucky team — not even Rick Pitino’s dominant, full-court pressing 1995-96 NCAA champions (91.4) — has finished a full season scoring at such a prolific rate since Adolph Rupp’s penultimate UK team averaged 95.4 ppg in 1970-71.
In just 15 games, UK’s torrid pace has yielded triple-doubles for De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe; Malik Monk’s 47 points in the scintillating 103-100 victory over North Carolina; and 11 games of 90 points or more.
For my money, the current Wildcats (13-2, 3-0 SEC) have produced easily the most entertaining half season of Kentucky basketball of the 21st century.
What very much remains to be proven is whether UK has the fortitude and capabilities to win against good teams that can slow the Cats’ roll. That’s why the best thing that could happen for Kentucky’s NCAA title hopes would be for the Cats’ remaining eight SEC road games to turn into all-out stress tests for the Wildcats.
In UK’s first true road game, the 73-70 loss at archrival Louisville Dec. 21, the Cardinals mostly succeeded in slowing down the Cats’ highlight reel.
Needing therefore to do the little things to win, Kentucky instead seemed rushed in its half-court offense, missed 10 of 29 foul shots and gave up several crucial follow-shot baskets while being outscored 11-4 in second-chance points.
Conversely, UK’s first SEC away contest, at Mississippi Dec. 29, didn’t prove to be much of a test because the Rebels played at Kentucky’s pace with less talent and got drubbed 99-76.
Given the abundant mediocrity of SEC basketball, it’s hard to envision UK losing an SEC game in Rupp Arena this winter.
So other than the much anticipated visit to Lexington by Big 12 kingpin Kansas on Jan. 28, any chances for Kentucky to show that it can win games from outside its comfort zone are going to have to come on the SEC road.
Where could those tests come?
On paper, clearly the toughest SEC road trip for UK will be the Feb. 4 visit to Florida (12-3, 3-0 SEC). Coach Mike White’s Gators were ranked No. 3 in both the NCAA’s official RPI and the realtimerpi.com rankings.
Florida’s three losses have come by five to Gonzaga, 10 to Duke and five to Florida State — but none of those games were in Gainesville.
Beyond the visit to Florida, Kentucky will face no SEC foe on the road that is currently ranked above 45th in the RPI.
After UK’s 2014-15 perfect regular season nearly crashed and burned at Georgia, no one in these parts should take Mark Fox’s Bulldogs (10-5, 2-1, No. 45) for granted in Athens.
UK’s three other SEC road trips will be to two teams currently ranked outside the RPI top 200 — Mississippi State (10-4, 1-1, No. 222) and Missouri (5-9, 0-2, No. 263) — plus Texas A&M (8-6, 0-3, No. 101).
Teams that win NCAA championships oft do so by showing they can win in multiple ways at differing paces.
The Anthony Davis-led 2012 UK NCAA champs were versatile enough to outscore Indiana 102-90 when the Hoosiers tried to speed up the Cats’ tempo in the NCAA round of 16 but also to grind it out and take down Louisville (69-61) and Kansas (67-59) in the Final Four and championship game, respectively.
For the national title aspirations of the 2016-17 Cats, the best thing that can happen is for forthcoming SEC road games to force Kentucky to find new and varied ways to win.
Calipari-era UK team scoring averages
Season: scoring average