Okay, so what do we know now?
· That Kentucky can win without Malik Monk at his best.
· That De’Aaron Fox has an intensity setting on his energy dial, primed for the biggest moments on the biggest stages.
· That Bam Adebayo just keeps getting better and better.
· That Dominique Hawkins’ special skill set seems a perfect ingredient for this team, going forward.
· That the same might be said for Derek Willis, though a good deal less spectacularly. He seems to have settled into a role where he doubles up on the interior defense, goes strong to the boards and only takes the occasional three during the course of the game.
So how good is this team, and what’s the future?
Anyone who has watched the tournament for any length of time knows that upsets will happen. To almost anyone. All four Number One seeds do make it all the way to the Final Four, but it’s far from an annual certainty.
As a Number Two seed, Kentucky might be in a position for one of those dramatic upsets. Or it may be the victim.
I find myself looking at this team like a full head of nice thick hair, but with comb-overs here and there to hide a few bald spots. Adabayo goes out and Isaac Humphries comes in, and the play suffers. Willis goes out and Wenyan Gabriel comes in, and the play suffers. Both Humphries and Gabriel seem to have regressed since the start of the season. (John Calipari raved about “Wenyan’s game” – he stepped in and drew an offensive foul against Arkansas, and hit a couple of foul shots – but otherwise, I’m still puzzled by what he’s bringing when he’s in there. Perhaps the best thing is for Gabriel to announce he’s not entering the draft, so Cal can stop trying to sell him to the NBA scouts.)
Isaiah Briscoe goes out and Hawkins comes in, and the play often improves. The ball doesn’t get stuck in one place, dribble-dribble-dribble, as the shot clock ticks down. There’s movement, there’s energy, there’s some solid defense. But Cal is loyal to Briscoe, and not without reason. Briscoe does bring many intangibles. In the NCAA, though, there’s less margin for indulging those “many intangibles.” You need points and stops, not fouls and turnovers.
Mychal Mulder may be as good a ninth man as anybody in the country. He’s active on offense, especially without the ball. He’s not afraid to launch a shot. He plays smart and athletic. He may turn a game around somewhere in the tournament. But he’s small by ‘4’ standards. And when he’s in, rebounding and interior defense often suffer.
So the brackets were announced, and Kentucky drew a two seed. Many on TV said Kentucky’s draw was particularly difficult, but probably all the other 67 teams felt the same way.
The good news is that the Cats start at Indianapolis, a short jog for both the team and its Big Blue Nation. But after Northern Kentucky, the heat definitely gets turned up. A potential weekend game would be against Wichita State – you know, the undefeated team that fell to the Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen in 2014. Think they’re thinking revenge? Doesn’t UK think revenge every time West Virginia shows up?
Wichita State is a 10 seed, considered low by many TV experts. It feels a bit like Kentucky getting Indiana in the second round a year ago. But this is a better Kentucky team than a year ago.
It better be, because looming in the Sweet Sixteen is UCLA. And, in the Elite Eight, North Carolina.
Two of the most memorable games Kentucky played all year. Both high-scoring, both down to the wire. Kentucky won one, because Monk scored 47 points. They lost the other, because he scored only 24.
Kidding. They lost because they got beat on the boards. Also because they gave up 97 points. Cal once proclaimed this team would be the best of all his defensive teams. That has seemed laughable throughout the season, but it’s not so laughable now. In winning its last 11 games, the team has swarmed on defense, Bam has made the post position his own. He had played only seven games prior to UCLA. He has played 34 now. There are no “freshmen” anymore.
Before that, of course, Kentucky has to take care of its business in Indianapolis. The tweaking, rebooting and experimenting are over. The real season starts now. You do what you have to do, or it’s back to biology class.
Frankly, I couldn’t imagine more of an incentive than that. VT