Kentucky reached the Final Four in four of the last five years, winning the national championship in 2012. The Wildcats took No. 1 overall seed Kansas to overtime at Allen Fieldhouse earlier this season, has the best offense in the nation and is No. 8 at KenPom.The Wildcats seem like a strong 4 seed in a loaded East Region, heading into Thursday night’s game against No. 13 Stony Brook, the regular season and tournament champions of the America East. Kentucky finished 26-8 and won the SEC tournament championship by beating Texas A&M in overtime on Sunday.
Yes, they lost four games to teams outside the top 60. But the last of those missteps occurred on Feb. 2.
And, while this certainly wasn’t a vintage season for the SEC - only three teams received NCAA bids and Vanderbilt lost by 20 in the First Four last night - the Wildcats offer plenty of reasons they can cause problems in the East.
1. Tyler Ulis. The Wildcats point guard has played the position at a ridiculously efficient level. He has a 127.1 offensive rating on the season, which is remarkable (105 is average, 110 is good). But his consistent production is even more impressive. In the Wildcats’ 23 games in 2016, he’s delivered a 120 rating or better 19 times. He dished out 10 or more assists in half of the Wildcats’ last 12 outings. Against the Aggies in the title game, Ulis was 10 of 17 from the field, 3 of 5 on 3-pointers and 7 of 8 on free throws. He finished with 30 points, five assists and one turnover and played all 45 minutes.2. John Calipari - In 24 years as a Division I coach, Calipari has plenty of experience in the Final Four. Seeding doesn’t seem to matter much to Calipari and the Wildcats, either. They reached the Final Four as a 4 seed in 2011 and an 8 seed in 2014.
3. Momentum and past history - Connecticut went 6-4 and 7-3 in its final 10 games before the NCAA tournament en route to its last two national titles. So consider the Huskies the outliers. Every other champ since 2008 was 8-2 or better. Kentucky enters the tournament with an 8-2 record in its last 10. Also, here’s another trend. The last seven national champions hailed from three states - Connecticut, Kentucky or North Carolina. Going back to 2004, Kansas and Florida join the fun. From a geographic perspective, it’s an elite club of net snippers.
4. Offense wins championships - Throw out those two UConn teams, who bucked all the trends, and every national champion since 2002 has had a top 10 offense per the adjusted efficiency statistics at KenPom. All but one of those non-Huskies was top four in the nation. The Wildcats are the best in the land at a points-per-possession basis and on the level of those champs, with a team rating of 122.3. The Wildcats have weapons and more 3-point firepower than some of their recent teams. Freshman sniper Jamal Murray has hit 110 3s at a 42 percent clip. Kentucky’s offense started clicking when forward Derek Willis started playing more minutes. He hurts teams inside (59 percent on 2-pointers) and outside (43 percent on 3-pointers).