OK, faithful readers, what did we learn?
A couple of weeks back I wrote that Kentucky’s three consecutive games against ranked opponents would tell us a lot about John Calipari’s club as we prepare to wrap up January and dive headfirst into the final full month of college basketball’s regular season.
Here’s what we learned: Kentucky is a Final Four team.
That isn’t to say the Cats will make the Final Four. There are no guarantees. Much depends on the toss of the dice. And there are plenty more than four teams capable of reaching the Final Four and in turn winning the national title. Right now, subject to change, I’d go with eight — Tennessee, Duke, Virginia, Michigan, Gonzaga, Michigan State, North Carolina and, yes, Kentucky.
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The Cats punched their ticket into this coveted club by reeling off victories over No. 14 Auburn (82-80 at Auburn), No. 22 Mississippi Sate (76-55 at Rupp) and No. 9 Kansas (71-63 on Saturday at Rupp as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge). They went from an improving 13-3 to a hey-remember-us-we’re-still-Kentucky 16-3. They jumped from the bottom end of the AP Top 25 to No. 8 with a shot at higher ground when the new rankings are dropped on Monday.
So how did this happen? How did Calipari’s club, hellbent on doom after the Duke disaster, circle back to the sky-high hopes raised by the way this team played in those August exhibition games in the beautiful Bahamas?
Answer: They’re no longer getting smooshed.
I’ll allow Calipari to explain.
“When we went to the Bahamas, we could not guard the ball, but we were playing teams we could run through,” the coach said Saturday. “And when you come back, and you can’t guard the ball, and you’re getting smooshed, you have no confidence, so now you’re a team looks like a team that has no confidence. When you have defensive confidence, that bleeds into your offense.”
Four of Kentucky’s last five opponents have failed to shoot 40 percent from the field. Vanderbilt shot 36.2. Georgia shot 30.4. Mississippi State shot 31.1. Before Saturday, Kansas was shooting 48.1 percent as a team. The Cats held the Jayhawks to 36.5 percent. UK’s record this season when holding foes under 40? That would be 8-0.
Kentucky is now 11th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to the math-tactic Ken Pomeroy. Ah, sweet data. Last year’s NCAA champ, Villanova, finished 11th in defensive efficiency. The 2017 champ, North Carolina, was 11th. The 2016 champ, Villanova again, was fifth. Of the 20 teams in the last five Final Fours, 14 finished among the top 20 that season in adjusted defensive efficiency.
It should be noted, however, just because we have now stamped this team as Final Four capable, that doesn’t mean it is clear sailing to March Madness. The Cats have yet to play top-ranked Tennessee. They get the Vols twice — Feb. 16 in Lexington (that’ll be fun) and March 2 in Knoxville. The Feb. 9 trip to Mississippi State is no picnic. LSU, which shares a 6-0 SEC mark with Tennessee, visits Rupp Arena on Feb. 12.
Still, I go back to something said after the first of this three-game obstacle course. Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl, who has no great love for Calipari (or vice versa) was the speaker. “Kentucky is better than they were last year,” said the coach. “They’re playing with a purpose.”
Last year, Kentucky reached the Sweet 16, where it failed to get through what should have been an open door to the Final Four. If this team is better — I say Pearl is on point — it is fully capable of getting through that door. There, faithful readers, is our lesson from the last three games. Prepare for a fun ride ahead.
No. 8 Kentucky at Vanderbilt
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)