Conducting a Reset on Kentucky’s National Championship Aspirations

Posted by Brian Joyce on April 4th, 2014

I have been wrong before. Many times actually, but the most recent time was a real doozy. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was playing basketball in the gym after work. I was doing my best Willie Cauley-Stein impression when I landed on one of my teammate’s foot and my ankle rolled onto its side. I knew instantly this was a reasonably bad injury. My best guess, based on my experience and susceptibility to reading Web MD, was to diagnose myself with a high ankle sprain.  I went about my entire weekend, standing on my feet to do some yard work, went grocery shopping, and walked 12,000 steps each day based on the Fitbit around my wrist. I did what I normally do on any given weekend because I am stubborn and had already determined that I had a high ankle sprain, and nothing more.

Was I also wrong about John Calipari's Wildcats?

Was I also wrong about John Calipari’s Wildcats?

Of course, the bruising and swelling in my right foot worsened from the activity, and the pain became excruciating. My ankle and toes had almost turned completely purple (I will spare you the pictures I was tempted to include). Based on the appearance and the pain, I finally succumbed to my wife’s pressure to go to the doctor about 72 hours after the injury occurred. To make a long story short, after a couple of x-rays and a CT scan, I found out I fractured my distal fibula and cracked my tibia. My certainty of a high ankle sprain could not be more untrue.

The self-diagnosis of my ankle is vaguely familiar to my erroneous analysis of Kentucky.  I did not anticipate the tweak working. I did not envision Aaron Harrison learning to shoot in the season’s last six games. I never imagined Andrew Harrison would become a pass-first point guard with vision and leadership. I did not foresee Julius Randle getting away from back to the basket post moves where he has not been as effective this season, and instead focus on putting himself in positions where he is efficient. In short, I did not predict Kentucky making a huge splash in the NCAA Tournament.  I certainly knew the Wildcats had the talent and interior presence to compete with Wichita State. I realized they had beaten Louisville before and could certainly do it again. I recognized Kentucky could dismantle Michigan’s porous defense if it played to its potential. But who knew it would all come together for four straight games in the manner it did? It was just too late for all of these elements to come together, I told myself, but you know I have been wrong before. Now that I have admitted the error of my ways, it is time to do a reset on Kentucky’s prospects of a national championship.

Why Kentucky Will Win the National Championship: Aaron Harrison. Harrison has come alive in the postseason, with an offensive rating streak over 100 dating back to the SEC championship game against Florida. The improvement in efficiency is undoubtedly the emergence of a consistent outside shot. The great Luke Winn already charted all 43 of Harrison’s post-season three-point shots demonstrating a vastly improved accuracy. If Harrison continues this trend for two more games, Kentucky may be cutting down, knowing Jerry Jones’ style, giant, over-sized, and very expensive nets in Arlington, Texas.

Aaron Harrison's hot hand. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr.; The Courier-Journal)

Aaron Harrison’s hot shooting. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr.; The Courier-Journal)

We cannot talk about Kentucky’s turnaround without at least mentioning Aaron’s brother, Andrew Harrison. The Wildcat point guard has 40 assists just in the SEC and NCAA Tournaments, accounting for 5.7 assists per game. Harrison’s transition into a pass-first type of point guard has fueled the Wildcats’ offense into the best three game stretch of offense they have assembled all year.

Why Kentucky Will Fall Short of a Ninth National Title: Interior defense. The Cats lost a big body and rim protector in Cauley-Stein to an ankle injury in the Louisville game, and Kentucky did not possess the stingy, unrelenting interior defense it had in previous seasons even before the injury. Under coach John Calipari, the Wildcats have never finished outside of the top 10 in two point defense or block percentage, but both will fall outside those parameters in the 2013-14 campaign. Can Dakari Johnson and Randle contain seven-footer Frank Kaminsky in the paint? If the Wildcats make it to Monday, can they keep Florida center Patric Young from hitting his low post hook shot? If they fail on either accounts, or revert back to pre-tweak days, it could be Kentucky’s undoing.

Kentucky's interior defense was inferior, even before the Cauley-Stein injury. (Cauley-Stein photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Kentucky’s interior defense was inferior, even before the Cauley-Stein injury. (Photo: AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Just a couple of weeks ago the Cats were left for dead with most, including me, prognosticating an early demise. Now, it looks like Kentucky is in great position to beat Wisconsin and then Florida to complete one of the most surprise championship runs in NCAA tournament history. The unlikely Wildcats could be national title winners after the confetti drops on Monday night. At this point, what seemed like impossible even seems to be the most likely scenario. Then again, I have been wrong before.

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

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