Tue, 03/02/2010 - 15:11 — Jason Brubaker
Every year, CBS concludes their coverage of the NCAA Tournament with “One Shining Moment”, the sappy video montage that shows the highlights, lowlights, emotions and passion that make March Madness so great. Monster dunks. Clutch three-pointers. Buzzer-beaters. Teary-eyed players and coaches. You name it- it's on there.
So why bring this up now, still two weeks from Selection Sunday? Well if Kentucky plans on making a deep run in the tournament, fans better familiarize themselves with the roller-coaster of emotions that are often captured in that video. Because despite their overwhelming talent, the young Cats still have plenty of flaws that could be the difference between cutting down the nets or heading home early.
The most glaring defect right now is clearly the lack of outside shooting. The Cats' 2-22 effort against Tennessee, unfortunately, isn't an aberration. Since the calendar flipped to February, the Cats have made only 35 three-pointers in 145 attempts, a robust 24 percent. And while they're 8-1 in those games, their shooting woes have forced them to play with a razor-thin margin of error, needing overtime to best Mississippi State by six and surviving in Nashville against Vanderbilt by only two points. Even 10-point margins of victory over teams like Ole Miss and Alabama are a little misleading, as both games were tight throughout. Yes, there's certainly something to be said for finding a way to win, and the Cats did that in two very tough environments. But winning sometimes offers a false sense of security, and in the one-and-done style of the Big Dance, another cold night from the floor against a quality team could spell trouble.
But shooting woes shouldn't be the biggest concern for UK. After all, this is a team that buried 12 threes in a home win over Vandy in January, as well as 10 in a win over Arkansas, 11 against Sam Houston State and 14 against Hartford. The Cats have shooters, albeit some inconsistent ones. But they're very capable of making outside shots. No, the real concern should be why they're missing those shots. And the answer is easy...tired legs.
The Cats' eight-man rotation includes four true freshmen, as well as a junior college transfer. And as spectacularly talented as guys like John Wall and Eric Bledsoe are, they are simply not used to playing this many minutes. Although most high school teams play 30-35 games each season, it's a safe bet that both Wall and Bledsoe were both able to spend some second halves on the bench last year, having already built up a big lead. Unfortunately, that's not been the case this year, as both players are averaging over 30 minutes per game for the season. And their stats bear out the fact that they may be wearing down from all of the time on the court.
In December and January, Wall shot 45 percent from the field and 41 percent from the three-point line. In February? He's at 39 percent from the field and a paltry 19 percent from behind the arc. Bledsoe has also seen his numbers dip, from 46 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point land to 40 percent from the field and 18 percent from three-point land in the same time. Of course some will point to the level of competition having increased in conference play, and the fact that UK is getting every team's best shot - both fair points. However, even if that is the case, the tournament certainly won't change either of those facts. The level of play is going to be just as high, and every team will be fighting to stay alive, meaning the target on UK will grown even bigger as March wears on.
And therein lies the next concern...the march through March. Can a team with so little postseason experience handle playing six games in three weeks, each with increased intensity and scrutiny? They certainly didn't show it this past weekend, playing on a short turnaround after beating South Carolina on Thursday night. They did manage to climb back in the game against Tennessee, but only after spotting them an 18-0 first half run, something that could end them if it happens in March. Quite simply, mental lapses and periods of defensive breakdowns usually mean early exits from the Big Dance. The Cats' talent level is so high, they've been able to win despite those errors all season. But what about when they match up with a quality team in the second or third round of the tournament, potentially a team like Wisconsin, a veteran team who slows the pace and makes you maximize every possession? Could they fight through a poor shooting night to keep their intensity and focus at both ends of the floor? Only time will tell.
Of course, it's only fair to point out that the Cats, despite their youth and occasional mental lapses, are still 27-2. They still have a Player of the Year candidate in Wall, a potential All-American in DeMarcus Cousins, and a versatile forward in Patrick Patterson who is likely to be a lottery pick in June. They are the biggest team in the country, and they've showed that when they lock in, they're nearly unbeatable. So can they win the title this year? Absolutely. But because of their youth, they probably enter the postseason with a few more question marks than other title contenders like Kansas or Syracuse. So it remains to be seen if the Cats will fulfill their potential and cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
But one thing is certain.
It's going to be a heck of a ride.