Record: 18-12 (12-4)
Key Wins: Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ole Miss
Key Losses: Gardner-Webb, N-UAB, at Houston, San Diego
Key Stat: 12-4 in SEC Play
Biggest Strengths: The Cats are tough. They’ve been through so much this season, there’s nothing that is really going to catch them by surprise. This is a team that has fought through injuries, a coaching change and transfers yet they still appeared destined for the NCAA Tournament.
Since Patterson went out this has unquestionably been a different team, but they have found a way to continue their momentum. Kentucky has shown an uncanny ability to milk the shot clock for all that it is worth and still knock down baskets. Many of the Wildcat players have attributed it to the fact that there is no pressure when they shoot at the buzzer.
The coach can’t really get on them for taking a bad shot with two seconds on the shot clock. The calmness and effectiveness at the end of the shot clock has allowed them to slow the game down a bit and preserve the energy of the few players who see the court. It has also supplied Kentucky with the confidence that they will be able to make baskets in clutch situations as Tournament games wind down.
Biggest Weaknesses: Despite the recent success of slowing the game down, the Cats still have a serious issue in the depth department. Without the services of Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks the Wildcats on the court have been forced to play a ton of minutes. Ramel Bradley has yet to see the pine since Patterson’s injury and others are averaging over 34 minutes-per-game. This was not a deep team before Patterson’s injury. With him out it becomes even more of an issue.
Most Important Player(s): The UK Seniors. At the beginning of the year Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford struggled with new head coach Billy Gillispie’s system. Because of this struggle they often found it difficult to find the court. Eventually, both Gillispie and the two senior guards realized in order to be successful they would all have to give a little. Bradley became the lead guard that Gillispie expected him to be, Crawford locked down defensively and picked his spots on offense, and Gillispie put the ball in his seniors’ hands. As a result Kentucky has been a totally different team the second half of the season. Bradley (1st Team), Crawford (2nd Team) and Gillispie (Co-Coach of the Year) were each named to the All-SEC Team in recognition of this turnaround.
Bradley is a tough-nosed, Brooklyn guard who is not scared to make mistakes. While he makes his share of mistakes (3.3 TPG), there is no one else that Coach Gillispie would want to have the ball in a clutch situation. “Smooth,” as UK fans refer to him, is effective from behind the arc and has been much more selective in the shots he puts up. He also has the ability to get into the lane and get to the line where he is a very good free throw shooter.
It took a little longer for Crawford to adjust to Gillispie’s system. Crawford has always been gifted on offense. There are not many who have the ability to shoot from outside along with the ability to put his head down, pump fake and somehow get the ball in the basket as Crawford does. He is extremely strong and wills his way into the lane, time and time again, to score the basketball. Still, Gillispie was frustrated with his unwillingness to penetrate and look to open shooters or to focus on the defensive side of the ball. In the second half of the year Crawford has been the Cats best lock-down defender and his improvement on defense has been monumental in their turnaround.
X-Factor: When it was announced that Patrick Patterson would miss the remainder of the season with a stress fracture in his left ankle many cashed the season in for the Wildcats. It appeared that the recent run of success would be all for naught without their talented freshmen underneath. But they surprised people by playing the Volunteers tough in Knoxville, losing by three with a chance at the buzzer, and handling South Carolina and Florida.
The main reason for their continued success is the improved play of sophomore Perry Stevenson. Prior to Patterson’s injury Stevenson was no where near a focal point in the Cats’ offensive attack. Occasionally, he would provide a weak side put-back or cut to the basket when opponents doubled Patterson on the block. He was mainly a shot blocker underneath but struggled to body up underneath because of his light frame.
Stevenson has been a totally different player in Patterson’s absence. In those three games the sophomore is averaging 11 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks-per-game. The improved play of Stevenson and others including Ramon Harris and Derrick Jasper has helped continue the Cats’ improbable ride towards the NCAATtournament.
Might Lose When: Crawford and Bradley are Kentucky’s only two reliable scorers. If defenses can find a way to lock these two guys down the Wildcats are going to be in trouble. Since Patterson’s injury the two seniors have provided more than seventy-percent of the offense for the Cats. Gillispie looks to his seniors often and if they struggle, get in foul trouble or if defenses find a way to contain them they are going to find it very difficult to get a victory.
Might Surprise You With: At this point in the year everything centers on Crawford and Bradley for the Wildcats. There is not a coach in the country who would not want two senior guards of this caliber. The two seniors have been in the spotlight for four seasons and there is nothing they want to do more than make a run in the NCAA tournament and continue their careers. While this team may not be as talented as others or as deep, opponents may find it difficult to knock them out. Look at all they have been through this year and we are still talking about them. These Cats have proven that they do indeed have nine lives and it isn’t going to be easy to get Crawford and Bradley to take off their UK jerseys for the last time.
Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: 2nd Round