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After a 71-68 defeat to South Carolina on Jan. 10, the Wildcats were 10-6 overall and 1-3 in the SEC. The preseason No. 4 team looked lost. Kentucky immediately responded with a triumph over then-No. 5 Tennessee, and weeks later it’s now an outside pick to win the national championship.
Kentucky picked up victories against Tennessee again, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Auburn, and Mississippi State between then and now, fully turning its season around for a third-place finish in the SEC. This is John Calipari’s 14th season at the helm, and Lexington is getting antsy for another Final Four and the national championship – it’s been 11 and eight years since each, respectively, an eternity to Big Blue Nation.
Last National Championship: 2012
Last Final Four: 2015
2023 Title Odds: +4500 (as of March 8, 2023)
Why Kentucky Will Make a Run
Oscar Tshiebwe is a wrecking ball. He’s not just averaging a double-double, he’s doing so comfortably. With 16.4 points per game and an NCAA-leading 13.1 rebounds per night, Tshiebwe has stacked up 18 double-doubles leading into the SEC Tournament, good for fifth-most in Division I. The senior is a scoring menace in the paint, but his rebounding might be even more valuable. Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation, and it’s largely because Tshiebwe hauls in more than five offensive boards per contest. You can’t stop the 6-foot-9, 260-pounder, you can only hope to contain him.
This is a good shooting team. The Wildcats are third in the SEC in field-goal percentage (46 percent) and second in the conference in three-point percentage (35.9 percent). Granted, Kentucky doesn’t attempt many triples, but when it does, it reaps rewards at a decent rate. Good shooting is essential to any deep tournament run, and if Kentucky can maintain consistency in that department, it could be in a position to win the national championship.
Why Kentucky Will Exit Early
The Wildcats aren’t great from the free-throw line. As a team, it shoots 70.8 percent from the line, an improvement from early on in the season but still nothing to get excited about. Only two members of the team’s rotation shoot 80 percent or better from the charity stripe, and players like Jacob Toppin and Sahvir Wheeler have really struggled from the line at times. Kentucky’s questionable free-throw shooting could make it more difficult to protect leads late in games, plus impact its ability to score easy points when other things aren’t clicking on offense.
Kentucky does well from deep, but it barely shoots from beyond the arc. Right now, the Wildcats are 326th nationally in triples attempted per game (17.8). Calipari teams traditionally shun the three-point line more than most, but with a respectable stable of shooters available, the Wildcats are throwing away potential points by insisting on shooting from two.
What It’ll Take to Win
Ideally, Kentucky sees as many small teams that are vulnerable to offensive rebounding explosions as possible. Those matchups would let Tshiebwe feast in all aspects of the game, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the contest’s pace. The Wildcats prefer a slower tempo, and a quicker game would make it more difficult to utilize Tshiebwe to his fullest.
Though Tshiebwe is a behemoth down low, Kentucky as a whole isn’t an outstanding defensive team. The Wildcats don’t force very many turnovers, so teams can get up a decent number of shots against them if they want. To win the national championship, Kentucky will have to put the clamps down harder and find ways to turn over its opponents, or someone will eventually punish the Wildcats for their passive ways.