The Blue-est Blood: Kentucky Sets The Stage For A National Title Run!
(Photo courtesy of Lexington Herald Leader)
I'm going to try to restrain myself...
Saturday evening Kentucky traveled to Lawerence, Kansas to take on the number five Jayhawks. Coming into the game Kansas Head Coach Bill Self (and his hair piece) had only lost 15 games since 2003 inside of Phog Allen Fieldhouse, which basically means, Kansas is unbeatable at home. The Cats faced a tough task taking down the Jayhawks at home with injuries cursing the Wildcats as of late. Tyty Washington, who sat out the home game against Mississippi State earlier this week returned to the court for this match up of Blue Bloods. While Tyty only finished with two points, Kentucky rolled to a 80-62 victory against Kansas, which is the largest road win against a top 5 team in program history!
Keion Freaking Brooks
Listen, I have been as critical of Keion Brooks as anyone this year. At times, he has the confidence of Michael Jordan and the ability of Kwame Brown (if you get that reference, you're too old). But tonight, he showed how critical he can be for this team. Keion finished the game with a new career high, 27 points and tacked on 8 rebounds for good measure. Kansas tried a variety of defenses to slow down the Cats, including a 2-3 zone, man-to-man, triangle and 2, but none of them were enough and Keion was able to find room near the free throw line and consistently knocked down jumper after jumper. This was an example of Keion Brooks at his best. When he plays within his abilities, and allows the game to come to him, he is awful hard to beat.
Keion was the obvious topic of conversation after the game but you cannot over look the contributions of Kellan Grady, Jacob Toppin and Oscar Tschiebwe. Toppin went a perfect 4-4 from the field including a three-pointer. After the game Cal told the story of how he was going to sub Jacob in for Keion, but Toppin being the mature player, told Cal to leave Keion in the game since he had the hot hand. Talk about selfless and doing what the team needs.
Grady played well on both ends of the court. While he is not known for his defense, he was charged with the task of guarding Player of the Year candidate (we will talk about that in a second), Ochai Agbaji, for most of the game, and Kellan delivered. Abaji was held to 13 points after scoring 37 in Kansas' last matchup against number 13 Texas Tech. Kellan put up 12 points shooting 4-7 from deep, most of which were wild and off balance shots. He continues to prove he may be the best 3 point shooter in the country.
I feel like a broken record here, but Oscar is amazing. He again finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds, and even managed 4 steals. Going into this game, many national media members agreed that Oscar and Abaji was one and two for Player of the Year. This game in my opinion was the rubber match for the two and Oscar flat out, out-played Abaji. I'm not sure how, if you're a voter, you can look at this game, and not give it to Oscar. What he is doing this season on offense and defense is almost unheard of, and to not give him Player of the Year would be disgraceful. If Oscar does win, he would only be the 2nd UK player to win it unanimously. The other one? Anthony Davis. Do the right thing, voters. Give it to Oscar.
(Photo from WholeHogSports)
Bad News For Shaedon?
Winning on the road against a top 5 team by 18 proved to everybody that this Wildcat team is a legit National Title contender. Amazing right? Well, yes, unless your heart is set on seeing Shaedon Sharpe on the court this season. There's a case to be made that Calipari is so confident in his team now, that he doesn't see a reason to play the projected top-10 NBA draft pick. Whether it be chemistry issues, concerns about a possible injury, or just not living up to expectations and hurting his draft stock, Cal may believe that he can win it all without Sharpe and opt to leave him on the bench. I still believe that there is a decent chance he plays at some point, but after this performance from the Cats, I believe in it less. If we don't see him Wednesday against Vanderbilt, I think we will know which decision Calipari has made on Shaedon.
Blue Got In
No disrespect to Kansas here (I mean they did invent basketball), but Kentucky is the bluest of bloods. They dismantled Kansas on their home-court, which doesn't happen, and extended their all-time wins record over the Jayhawks. I said before the game Kansas is the hardest place to play in college basketball. Big Blue Nation invaded Phog Allen, and was even able to get a Go Big Blue chant and C-A-T-S going. There is no other fan base in the country (and I am tempted to say in any sport, at any level) that could invade a place like Kansas and do what Big Blue Nation did Saturday night. So, hats off to everyone that made the trip and cheered on the Cats. Kansas, I applaud and respect you for creating this sport, however, The Kentucky Wildcats own it, run it, and proved that everyone is their little brother.
So Now What?
OK, so this is all good but what does it mean for the Cats moving forward? Well first and foremost it means they should make a big jump in the polls. I expect to see Kentucky in the top 8 when the polls are released on Monday. But for the bigger picture, we can start to see a path to New Orleans for the Final Four and that starts with seeding. While a 1 seed isn't out of reach, I think a 2 seed is what we should shoot for. It is more realistic and honestly, could play out for more winnable matchups in March.
Kentucky still has a tough SEC schedule ahead of them, but if they can finish the rest of the road games with a winning record that should put them in position for a 2 seed come Selection Sunday. Being a two seed instead of three is important because that guarantees we stay away from teams UK wants to avoid early, such as Duke. Not that I think UK can't win that game (they most certainly can), but that is a tough matchup for the Cats.
Ideally, if Kentucky grabs a two seed, this is the scenario. Gonzaga will be a 1, but the winner of the PAC-12 will be the 2 in that bracket so we avoid them. Auburn will presumably be a 1 seed, but they will avoid putting the number two team in the conference (Kentucky) against a conference winner (Auburn), so we avoid them as well. The only other team that I am not sure we matchup well against is Duke, and since they are a likely two seed, we obviously wont play them either. That means UK probably gets either Purdue or Baylor as the one seed in their region, and lets be honest... Do either of those scare you? Me either.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I don't want to get ahead of myself, but this is a team that, if healthy, can and should have National Title hopes. They can score from all levels. From deep they have have shooters like Grady, Washington and Mintz. They have mid-range scorers in Washington and Keion. And in the paint they have guys like Oscar, Toppin and Wheeler. Add in that level of scoring with the SEC leader in assists (Sahvir Wheeler) and the nations leading rebounder and should-be National Player of the Year (Tschiebwe), this team truly has the make up of one that could bring home number 9! Go Cats.