Anyone looking beyond those three schools probably considered Tennessee, coming off an SEC East title and in year two under energetic Coach Bruce Pearl. After all, the Vols returned the top shooter in the league Chris Lofton as well as one of the most unique (and annoying) guys to play against in Dane Bradshaw.
Kentucky? Please! All the pundits (including this one) wrote off the "gang that can't shoot straight" because of its chronic inability to put the ball in the basket. Plus they were without their leading rebounder, defender and assist man in Rajon Rondo. Their best outside shooter, Patrick Sparks was gone as well. No, the conventional wisdom was right on target; Kentucky could easily be written off.
Boy what a pack of idiots we were!
Forget that Tubby Smith has averaged 26 wins for the past nine years in Blue Grass country. Forget that talented but underachieving big man Randolph Morris just might emerge as the star many projected three years ago. Forget that Joe Crawford had averaged over ten points a game despite playing only 24 minutes a night. Forget that the Kentucky Wildcats will flat out guard you butt and challenges outside shooters as well as anyone. Forget history, ignore tradition and you end up looking like a dope.
By now you should know I hate the fan chant "over rated" at the end of big wins. Why fans would in unison choose to downgrade their own team's accomplishment is beyond me. Be that as it may, we might start hearing the chant "under rated" at Rupp Arena in the weeks ahead. Kentucky is ranked # 25 in this week's A.P. Poll and isn't even in the coaches' top 25. That's kind of hard to understand if you look at the Wildcats' resume'.
Kentucky is now 15-and-3 and has won eleven straight games. The ‘Cats are four-and-0 in the SEC, the conference that sent two teams to the Final Four last year. Their only losses all came against ranked teams: # 3 UCLA, # 4 North Carolina and 17th-ranked Memphis.
One thing working against Kentucky is its lack of significant victories. The biggest wins Kentucky has are over Louisville, Indiana and DePaul. Those are three solid basketball teams and legit NCAA Tournament contenders, but none is currently ranked.
Improved Morris is a Key
Randolph Morris has always been a good offensive player for a big guy, but his defense and rebounding has not been anything to brag about. Well the junior center has made tremendous strides thus far this season. Morris is averaging 8.1 rebounds a game, up from six boards a night a year ago. He also has blocked 40 shots in 18 games, compared to just 24 all of last season.
Morris still has a long way to go as a post defender, but he is far more effective on the defensive end of the floor than ever before.
Morris' play compliments the significant improvement in the Wildcats back court of Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley. The two combined for 38 points in the blowout of South Carolina and on the year are combining for about 28 points, nine rebounds and seven assists a night. Bradley, a 30 percent three point shooter a year ago is knocking down well over 40 percent from long range. When these two are on target, Kentucky will be very tough to beat.
One big question is whether Coach Tubby Smith will allow these guys to play free and easy in bigger games. The shots they launched against South Carolina looked a whole lot better than the tentative, pained releases we saw in the 40-minute eyesore that was the Louisville game.
Schedule Will Get Tougher
It must be noted that Kentucky has had a very favorable SEC schedule to this point with road games at Carolina and Ole Miss and home games with Mississippi State and Auburn. That is also a list of four of the SEC squads that are the least likely NCAA tournament teams in the league. Like Florida, the Wildcats face a tougher back half of the schedule including road games in Fayetteville, Knoxville, Tuscaloosa and Gainesville after February first.
Still, you have to give credit to Kentucky for what it has done to this point. You also have to accept the reality that while the road to the SEC Title may run through Gainesville it does not and never will by-pass Lexington.