Larry Vaught reporting from the SEC Tournament in Atlanta.
For Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament and reach the Final Four when the NCAA Tournament begins, the Cats are going to have to play their best basketball of the season.
They'll have to play like the did the second half at Louisville, not like they did the first half of that game or the one at North Carolina. They'll have to shoot like they did at Alabama, not like they did at South Carolina.
So which player holds the key to UK's postseason success? Is it improving center Randolph Morris, who is scoring and rebounding more as he's learning to avoid fouls? Is it dynamic freshman point guard Rajon Rondo, who is quicker than quick? Is it Chuck Hayes or Kelenna Azubuike? Is it someone coming off the bench?
If you are college basketball analyst Larry Conley, the choice is guard Patrick Sparks. He's a player Conley expected to have a much better season than he's had. Or at least a more consistent season.
"He's had some really good games, but also some really poor games," Conley said. Sparks has shot 50 percent or better from the field in nine games, all UK wins. He's shot 33 percent or less in 11 games, including all four UK losses. Sparks is a combined 11-for-41 from the field in the Cats' losses.
"Sparks is really a good passer and does a lot of things well even when he is not shooting well, but for them to succeed they need him to play well," Conley said. "You hate to put it on one guy as player who has to get it done, but that's how I feel."
Conley thinks Hayes and Azubuike will consistently produce. "Not many teams are going to shut those two guys down," he said. He feels Morris is playing "much, much better" and that Rondo has been a "pleasant surprise" because of his consistent floor game.
"He can't shoot it. He needs to learn to do that. He has to learn to shoot free throws and do things with his shot," Conley said. But for the Cats to be a national title contender, Conley says Sparks needs one of those hot-shooting streaks the next few weeks.
"They need his scoring. He's shown what he can do, he just has to do it consistently now," Conley said. "If he can play well, then Kentucky's chances (of winning the national title) are as good as anyone's. If he doesn't play well, then I'm just not sure how well they can do."