As it stands right now, I see Kentucky as a Sweet 16 team.
It owns the résumé of a team hoping to make its way out of the first weekend of the Big Dance. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has UK a No. 4 seed. The Cats are ranked 21st by AP, 18th by Jeff Sagarin’s computer, 23rd by Ken Pomeroy, 23rd by CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish. With UK at No. 7, the RPI is the outlier.
Things change, of course. This time last year, eventual national champ North Carolina was ranked 11th in the AP Top 25. Kentucky was sixth. Baylor was No. 1, Kansas No. 2, Villanova No. 3 and UCLA No. 4 in the AP Top 25. All received first-place votes. None made the Final Four.
And if you accept that this Kentucky team is improving — “We’re getting closer,” John Calipari said Tuesday once the Cats squeaked past Texas A&M 74-73 — the question is how much better will it get? How high is its ceiling?
The Cats have not beaten a team ranked on the day of the game, losing 65-61 to then-No. 4 Kansas in Chicago and 76-65 at then-No. 23 Tennessee last Saturday. It is 3-3 against top 50 kenpom.com, Sagarin and RPI teams. By computer numbers, its best win is against an A&M team that is 0-4 in the SEC.
Though 3-1 in the SEC, its victories are by a combined nine points. By this time last year, UK had won by 23 at Ole Miss, 42 at home over Texas A&M, 26 at home over Arkansas and six at Vanderbilt.
And yet, this is not just the youngest team in the country, but the youngest team Calipari has ever coached. That’s saying something. What it says is that this team has considerable room for improvement.
Here we recall Calipari’s phrase from a couple of weeks back: Players have to get better individually for the team to get better. Better ball-handlers. Better passers. Better shooters. Better defenders. Better decision-makers. Teamwork follows.
We’re seeing flashes. Developing into the lead dog, PJ Washington is much improved. Until cramps forced his exit, he alone took the fight to Tennessee. He made key plays down Tuesday’s stretch. Last three games, Washington is 19-of-30 from the floor.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s “old man game” gives modern teams fits. He’s scored at least 16 points in three of his last four games. He played 38 minutes at Tennessee. With Quade Green sidelined by a back injury, he played 39 Tuesday, his legs turning into “noodles” in the final five minutes.
After sickness undercut his efforts at LSU and Tennessee, Hamidou Diallo reappeared Tuesday. Fourteen of his 18 points came in the second half. He was active and energetic, though afterward admitted he’s still finding his place on the team. It’s a rocky road, he said. Ups and downs.
UK could use more “ups” from Nick Richards and Kevin Knox. Richards last scored in double figures Dec. 9. He has one double-digit rebound game. He’s capable of more. Same for Knox. While his averages are respectable (14.1 points, 5.7 rebounds), he has better than average talent. When his game expands, his impact will, too.
Then there’s the wild card. Jarred Vanderbilt has started practicing. Out since a preseason foot injury, Vanderbilt could be game-ready soon, but only for short bursts at first. By all accounts he will bring strength and versatility to the table. But can he acclimate quickly? Will he mess with team chemistry? And can he stay healthy?
“He’s a willing passer, which this team needs,” Calipari said Tuesday of the freshman’s upside.
And “upside” is the key word. If Kentucky looks like a Sweet 16 team now, does it have the upside to go further? Thankfully, it’s still a long way until Selection Sunday.
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Memorial Gym in Nashville
Radio: UK Radio Network