Kentucky knocked off Mississippi State in Starkville last night to improve to 16-2 on the year and 6-0 in SEC action. Ho hum. Spoiler alert: you’ll probably see quite a few sentences that read similarly the rest of the season.The Wildcats aren’t the only team that has run the table in conference play thus far, but they might be the only high-major squad that has a realistic chance to go undefeated between now and the NCAA tournament. Kentucky is a superpower in a league that is otherwise bereft of them; only one other SEC school (Florida) lies in the top 25 of KenPom right now. South Carolina and Florida are each ranked in the AP Poll, but both are outside of the top 15.
While KenPom doesn’t project Kentucky to go unbeaten the rest of the way when examining the sum of its remaining schedule – that’s a different exercise than picking each game individually – the numbers give UK a fighting chance. And when predicting each game in a vacuum, KenPom does project Kentucky to win out:
|Jan. 21||South Carolina||W, 80-67|
|Jan. 24||at Tennessee||W, 89-78|
|Jan. 28||Kansas||W, 89-83|
|Jan. 31||Georgia||W, 86-70|
|Feb. 4||at Florida||W, 81-80|
|Feb. 7||LSU||W, 102-75|
|Feb. 11||at Alabama||W, 79-68|
|Feb. 14||Tennessee||W, 92-74|
|Feb. 18||at Georgia||W, 82-73|
|Feb. 21||at Missouri||W, 88-88|
|Feb. 25||Florida||W, 85-76|
|Feb. 28||Vanderbilt||W, 90-71|
|March 4||at Texas A&M||W, 81-71|
The 2016-17 Kentucky Wildcats are not the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats. The latter was much more talented, but based on outside forces, this year’s version could win almost as much. And let’s be clear: this year’s Kentucky outfit still possesses overwhelming ability.
With apologies to Creighton, which lost Mo Watson for the rest of the year this week – Kentucky has the best backcourt in America. It begins with De’Aaron Fox, college basketball’s version of a Ferrari that does everything on the court at an A+ level, sans the ability to shoot. Fox is the closest thing Kentucky has had to John Wall since, well, Wall himself. In fact, Fox has clearly been better. Take a look:
Everybody knows how awesome Malik Monk is by now, so we’ll save the gushing for a later date. But he’s the most electrifying scorer in the nation, and what makes this backcourt so special is how well the parts complement one another. Monk is an average defender, but Fox is a hound; Fox is a below average shooter, but Monk is an elite sniper; Monk often has tunnel vision, but Fox’s passing ability is divine; Fox struggles to score against a set defense, but Monk is a crunch time assassin.
And then there’s Isaiah Briscoe, who’s quietly having a phenomenal season. Briscoe is a perimeter defensive ace that boasts some playmaking chops on offense, but in his freshman campaign, foes (rightfully) ignored him at the 3-point arc.
Briscoe has tidied up his outside stroke, as he’s canning a healthy 37.9 percent of his triples this season. He went 5-for-37 from 3-point range in 2015-16. This is a crucial development for a Kentucky roster that isn’t exactly stocked with shooting outside of Monk; if Briscoe can space the floor and attack closeouts consistently, the whole offense opens up.
The Wildcats’ frontcourt players defend, rebound and set good screens on the offensive end. With a three-headed monster in the backcourt, that’s just fine; Bam Adebayo isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon on the low block, but he can beat single coverage and exploit mismatches. When talented pieces fit together, you have something special on your hands.That’s all great – but when discussing Kentucky, greatness is the standard. It doesn’t mean they’re supposed to go undefeated from January on every season.
But taking a look at the remaining schedule, how many of these games scare you if you’re a Kentucky fan? Kansas does, but the Wildcats get the Jayhawks at Rupp Arena. A road tilt at Florida will be difficult, but the Gators don't have a top-30 KenPom win to their name at the moment. The Wildcats are first in those rankings.
Kentucky is 6-0 in the SEC right now with a plus-20.7 average margin of victory, and it gets its toughest remaining opponent at home. Outside of the Wildcats, no Power Five or Big East team can reasonably be expected to win out. Here are some of the schools that still haven’t lost a conference game, and what’s in store for them as potential hazards.
-Kansas (at West Virginia, at Baylor)
-Oregon (at UCLA)
-Arizona (at UCLA, at Oregon)
-Notre Dame (at Florida State, vs. Virginia, at Louisville)
Kentucky has potential obstacles, but not to those levels.
Running the table is still unlikely. Winning is hard college basketball – particularly on the road, against other talented teams and intelligent coaches.
But it also wouldn’t be shocking to see Kentucky head into Selection Sunday with a grand total of two losses. That would likely earn the Wildcats the No. 1 overall seed. People are always talking about Kentucky, but ranked fifth in the country, UK isn’t the top story in college basketball right now.
As dominoes continue to fall ahead of them, though, that could change. Don’t be shocked if that AP ranking dwindles to a singular tally by season’s end.