John Clay: This final week will tell us plenty about Kentucky basketball's postseason chances

John Clay, Lexington Herald-Leader on

Published in Basketball

Coaches constantly preach taking it one game a time.

Thankfully, we’re not required to follow that rule.

This is a big week for Kentucky basketball. Vanderbilt visits Rupp Arena for a late 9 p.m. Senior Night tipoff on Wednesday. Kentucky handled the Commodores 109-77 in Nashville on Feb. 6. So the Cats will need to take care of business before the week’s main attraction.

Saturday’s 4 p.m. rematch with Tennessee in Knoxville is a more compelling matter. It’s the regular-season finale. It’s also a measuring stick for John Calipari’s young team, which lost to the Vols 103-92 in Lexington on Feb. 3. The Cats have won five of their last six, with the lone loss a one-point, last-second decision at LSU.

Kentucky’s offense is in overdrive. The Cats have scored 319 points in their last three games, an average of 106.3 per outing. They scored 117 in a 22-point win over Alabama; 91 in a two-point buzzer-beater win at Mississippi State, then 111 Saturday in a nine-point race horse of a victory over Arkansas. It was the highest-scoring SEC regular-season game since 1996.

“I told Jay Wright (of CBS) that at one point, I was like let them score so we can get it back,” Calipari said afterward. “That isn’t what I said but that’s what it looked like.”

Defense remains the fly in UK’s ointment. Arkansas shot 53.1% Saturday, the third consecutive team to shoot 50% or better against Calipari’s club. The Razorbacks entered the game ranked 121st in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency numbers. Eric Musselman’s club departed with their SEC high in points, including 48 points in the paint.

“We had to outscore them,” Calipari said.

Kentucky coach John Calipari and his team watch Antonio Reeves take free throws after a technical foul was called on Arkansas coach Eric Musselman during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena. Silas Walker


The Cats couldn’t outscore the Vols in Rupp. Since then, Tennessee has continued to play next-level ball. UT’s 81-74 victory at Alabama on Saturday completed a regular-season sweep of the Crimson Tide and moved the Vols into first place in the league standings at 13-3.

Tennessee did so without a big game from Dalton Knecht. The potential NBA lottery pick scored 13 points. But teammate Zakai Zeigler scored 18. Josiah-Jordan James grabbed 13 rebounds. Jonas Aidoo scored 12 points and collected seven rebounds. And Jahmai Mashack made key plays as the Vols rallied for the victory.

Tennessee has a challenging assignment Wednesday night at South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat the Vols 63-59 at Thompson-Boling on Jan. 30. Lamont Paris’ club has rebounded from a brief two-game losing streak with three straight wins, including an impressive 82-76 victory over visiting Florida on Saturday.

South Carolina is 12-4 in the SEC. A Wednesday win would tie the Vols in the standings but give Carolina the upper hand thanks to a season sweep and the inside track on the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament, starting March 13 in Nashville.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is tied with Auburn for fourth place at 11-5. The Cats own the tiebreaker for the conference tourney double-bye thanks to their 70-59 win at Auburn on Feb. 17. But Auburn has a relatively easy final week with a Tuesday game at Missouri (0-16 in league play) followed by a Saturday home game against Georgia (5-11).

All of this makes Saturday’s Cats-Vols matchup so interesting. Two wins this week coupled with a strong SEC Tournament showing could earn the Vols a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament. Barnes’ club has the makings of a Final Four team. Offensively, Kentucky owns Final Four potential, as well.

Not to beat a dead horse, but UK’s defense has to improve. The showing against Arkansas dropped the Cats to 98th in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. Of the 20 teams in the past five Final Fours, just one ranked higher than 47th in defensive efficiency. That was Miami at No. 99 last season.

Can Kentucky keep outscoring opponents, or will the Cats have to show at least modest defensive improvement to make a March run? The Tennessee game should not only tell us how much the Cats have improved, but give us a peek at the future.

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