1. Cleaning The Glass
When Kentucky went through its worst stretch of the season -- losing three out of four games to Tennessee, Kansas and Florida -- one of the biggest factors was the Wildcats' disappointing performance in the rebound column. UK was minus-23 in those three games, and freshman center Bam Adebayo took the lion's share of criticism as his per-game average started to sink. In a five-game stretch that included the losses to the Vols, Jayhawks and Gators, Adebayo had only 28 rebounds. That led to a new emphasis by the UK staff, including extra running in practice for the entire team whenever Adebayo did not go up to rebound with each of his powerful hands. Fast forward to the last five games. Adebayo has pulled down 56 rebounds -- twice as many as the bad stretch -- including dominant 15-rebound efforts against Missouri and Florida. The Cats are plus-76 on the glass since the embarrassing performance in Gainesville and have allowed only 27 second-chance points to their last five opponents combined. This category is one of the biggest factors in NCAA Tournament success, and UK is definitely aimed in the right direction.
2. Getting To Line, Making Free Throws
Another point of emphasis for John Calipari & Co. has been getting the ball to Adebayo in the halfcourt offense and prodding freshman guard Malik Monk to rely less on his potent jump shot and more on attacking the basket. Both have yielded nice dividends. The idea of feeding Adebayo consistently may not have made much sense earlier in the season when he went through stretches like 11-for-20 and 10-for-26 at the line, but he has worked hard to become one of the Cats' most reliable free-throw shooters. In the last five games, Adebayo is 26 of 34 (76 percent) at the charity stripe. Most fans now feel absolutely confident when he toes the line. Monk, meanwhile, has been stellar in this category. He's 32 of 36 (89 percent) over the last five games. As a team, UK reached 70 percent for the season after the Vanderbilt game. That's a figure most analysts believe a tourney team must achieve to survive and advance.
3. Winning A Different Way
As the season progressed, the proverbial "book" on UK was to slow the game down and prevent the Cats from getting into transition at all costs. With teams taking drastic measures to grind tempo to a methodical slugfest, it took time for another freshman-dominated roster to adjust. Kentucky is no longer averaging 93 points per game like it was midway through the season, but it may be better off now. The Cats' adjusted defensive efficiency ranking (12th) has actually passed its offensive ranking (14th), something that no one would have imagined midway through the season. They've learned they're capable of winning in more ways than running and gunning. That's still their forte, but they've also put together a seven-game winning streak with little or no transition scoring to speak of, beating opponents by grinding late-game possessions. During the streak, UK has had double-digit fast-break points in only two games (Alabama and Tennessee). In the other five, the Cats have finished with 6, 6, 2, 4 and 8 transition points. Pardon the pun, but running is no longer a make-or-break situation for Big Blue.