Cats Enter Postseason with Added Experience
From an age standpoint, Kentucky isn’t a very experienced team. But with this team, age is much more indicative of UK’s youth, and perhaps not nearly as indicative of the Wildcats’ rapidly growing experience.
The Southeastern Conference Tournament may or may not have aided Kentucky’s seed in the Big Dance, but there’s no question that UK’s a better and more experienced team from it.
“The Georgia and (Texas) A&M games were both high level NCAA Tournament games. High level,” head coach John Calipari said. “So, they weren’t opening-round games. Those were (like) the third game, the fourth game (of the NCAA Tournament). I mean, that’s what that was. Get down, the other teams were playing well, and we respond and we fight.”
Per KenPom.com, No. 4-seed Kentucky (26-8) ranks 340th nationally in experience, averaging 0.95 years. The experience value is in terms of years of college experience where a player’s class is used for determination and is weighted based on minutes played.
Kentucky’s experience can be hard to determine though based on the name across its chest and the fact that it gets every team’s best shot, whether the opposition is in the top 10 or bottom 10 of the country. That experience of being every team’s Super Bowl will now aide the Cats as they prepare for America East champion Stony Brook (26-6) on Thursday.
“Yeah, it’s great having tests,” Lee said. “I mean, it’s fun blowing people out, but you never really understand what’s coming up next, you’re never really ready. Being battle-tested makes you always ready all at one time.”
At the SEC Tournament, Kentucky was able to do things it hadn’t done all season. UK entered the tournament with a 0-3 record when trailing at halftime, but was victorious against both Georgia in the semifinals and Texas A&M in the championship despite being down at the break. Additionally, Kentucky won its first overtime game of the season after losing at Kansas and Texas A&M earlier in the year in overtime.
“We went to overtime and I’m just like, ‘OK, we’ve been through this before,’ ” freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe said. “I think we were more experienced than we were last time, and we came out with the win.
“This is just getting us ready for the tournament. Everybody is more confident now, and we’re just going to take this momentum and keep on rolling with it.”
That momentum hasn’t always been easy to obtain this season for the Wildcats. With an inexperienced and oft-injured roster, Kentucky had head-scratching losses to UCLA, Ohio State, Auburn and Tennessee, none of which are in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
But as the Wildcats’ health returned, so too did their winnings ways. After defeating Florida on March 1 while still one man down, Derek Willis returned from an ankle injury for the regular-season finale against LSU and Kentucky has put together four of its best games of the season since.
“We’re still growing as a team,” Calipari said. “You know, there were statements about, ‘Well, this team was injured, this team and now.’ Well, what about us? What about our team? We were injured all year. So we’re still improving, which makes me feel pretty good as a coach because it’s what we want.”
Sophomore Tyler Ulis did not start a single game last season, but a rather easy argument could be made that he entered this season as the second most experienced player on the Wildcats’ roster behind senior Alex Poythress. As he enters his second NCAA Tournament in as many years, Ulis is also the most crucial player to UK’s future success.
The All-American and SEC Player of the Year has averaged a ridiculous 36.9 minutes per game this season, and yet has turned the ball over just 62 total times, or, put another way, once every 19.6 minutes of game action.
En route to earning SEC Tournament MVP honors, Ulis showed his poise throughout each of UK’s three games, capped off by a career-high 30 points in the title game, and his teammates followed his lead.
“He’s playing great,” Poythress said. “Never gets rattled, runs our team. He’s exactly what you want from a point guard and just so poised, calm out there.”
UK still has a lack of experience in the Big Dance, but coming off back-to-back hard-fought games in the league tournament will serve the Wildcats well as they prepare for the always grueling NCAA Tournament.
“I mean, if we had a cakewalk it wouldn’t have prepared us for anything,” Marcus Lee said. “But having games like these it forces us to battle the whole time, it makes us ready for what we might see.”