John Clay

This Kentucky basketball team is more than we (me included) thought it would be

I was right, but I was also wrong.

Back in January, I wrote that this Kentucky basketball squad looked like a Sweet 16 team. Turned out, I was right. But what I inferred was that a regional semifinal was its ceiling. On that, it looks very much like I could be wrong.

That’s based partly on the way the South Region has opened up for John Calipari’s Cats. By the end of Friday night’s first-round play, No. 5 Kentucky was the highest-seeded team in its half of the regional bracket. No. 1 seed Virginia had historically lost to No. 16 UMBC. No. 4 seed Arizona had convincingly lost to No. 13 seed Buffalo.

More importantly, my updated assessment is based on the fact Kentucky is playing its best basketball at exactly the time when your best basketball is needed.

After suffering that four-game streak in early February — “The best thing that happened to us,” Calipari said recently — the Cats have won nine of their last 10 games, including five straight in the postseason.

They’ve won both ways. An offensive surge keyed a four-game win streak. Then after an 80-67 loss at Florida snapped the string, the Cats have turned it up on the defensive end to win five straight.

Starting with the SEC Tournament, not one of UK’s five opponents have managed to shoot even 40 percent from the floor. The numbers: 28.3 percent for Georgia; 37.9 percent for Alabama; 37.1 percent for Tennessee; 39.3 percent for Davidson; 38.8 percent for Buffalo.

Davidson entered the NCAA Tournament a top-30 three-point shooting team at 39.1 percent. The Wildcats were 11-for-33 in Thursday’s loss to UK. Buffalo made 15 of 30 threes in its upset of Arizona. The Bulls were 7-for-31 in its Saturday loss to the Cats, including two of 14 in the second half.

Heading into Sunday’s games, Kentucky ranked second nationally in three-point percentage defense. The national average is 35.1 percent. UK’s opponents are shooting 29.8 percent.

“Our length,” said PJ Washington on Thursday when asked why UK has been so effective guarding the three. “And we’ve learned how to get out on shooters.”

Truth be told, this team is now applying such lessons. Credit Calipari. Count me among those who doubted if he could beat the clock with this particular team with its inexperience and inconsistencies. Once again, he’s done it.

Count me, too, among those who thought the talent level wasn’t quite there for a possible Final Four run. I believed this freshmen class’ skill level did not match that of previous Calipari teams, ones with John Wall, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle, Jamal Murray, just to name a few. I doubt I was alone on that.

Take Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Though a top recruit, Gilgeous-Alexander was among the least heralded of UK’s 2017 class. In actuality, he has proven indispensable. Kevin Knox is UK’s leading scorer, but Shai is the straw that stirs UK’s drink, a 6-foot-6 point guard who can handle, score and play defense. It’s hard to imagine where this team would be without him. For sure, it would not be two wins from the Final Four.

Don’t book your flight to San Antonio yet, however. This has been a wild and crazy NCAA Tournament. Ask Virginia. Six double-digit seeds made it to the second round. Loyola-Chicago, a No. 11 seed, knocked off Tennessee on Saturday to book its trip to Atlanta.

Kentucky will be there, as well. Catlanta, they call it. In Boise, where Big Blue Nation’s numbers were smaller, the crowd quickly adopted the underdog Buffalo as chief rooting interest. In Atlanta, the weather report calls for a heavy influence of what the old Georgia coach Hugh Durham used to call the “Blue Mist.”

“I’m hearing we’ll have a lot of support,” said Gilgeous-Alexander on Saturday.

So I was right in believing this Kentucky basketball team could reach the Sweet 16. I was wrong in thinking it would likely advance no further. It hasn’t yet, but it can. Yes, it can.

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