Well, this is more like it. The Wildcats continued their upward swing with a dominating 21 point victory over Missouri on Saturday. The convincing win over a projected NCAA Tournament bubble team vaulted Kentucky back into the rankings at No. 23. Another very winnable game is next on tap as the Wildcats host Ole Miss.
Here are the three keys to this one:
Play the trends
Even if Kentucky was still the bad version of the team from a couple of weeks ago they should have enough to beat this Ole Miss squad. The Rebels have endured a miserable season and – unlike Kentucky – there has been no perceptible sign of growth over the last few games. Ole Miss is 12-17 on the season, 5-11 in SEC play, and a stunningly bad 1- in true road games with their only win in such a scenario being against the fading Missouri Tigers.
Kentucky – on the other hand – finally seems to have found a groove. Jarred Vanderbilt has been a huge addition to the roster late in the season, while coach John Calipari always has his team playing better basketball in February and March than in October and November. The interesting aspect is that this season it didn’t look like that change was going to happen, then suddenly Kentucky is playing at a much higher level.
These two trends should continue if Kentucky plays smart, efficient basketball.
Get the five freshmen on the floor
There are some pretty crazy numbers at play when you consider the contributions of a lineup featuring Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Know, Jarred Vanderbilt, and PJ Washington over the last three games. It is important to note this is not the Wildcats starting lineup – Green, Washington, and Vanderbilt come off of the bench – but it is a lineup that Calipari is going to turn to more and more as the season hits crunch time.
Against Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri, those five players have been on the court together for just a few ticks short of 24 minutes. In those 24 minutes, the Wildcats have scored 74 points. Pull that out over a full game and Kentucky would be scoring 124 points per contest (and clearly be unbeaten).
It is not just a pure point scoring thing either. The freshman lineup has outscored the opponents by 28 points in total – showing they can play some defense – while outrebounded the other teams by 16. Oh, and they have only committed four turnovers.
It is a ridiculous level of play and it is one that Ole Miss should see for at least 15 minutes of game time as Calipari increases their time on the court together every game.
The boards belong to Jarred Vanderbilt
Yes, we mentioned Vanderbilt in the last key, but the sensation freshman has made such a difference to the Kentucky team since recovering from an injury that he deserves his own mention.
Vanderbilt shoots at a highly efficient rate, but it is his wild and ridiculous rebounding numbers that have pushed this team toward relevancy when they were in danger of dropping from it. Against Mizzou, Vanderbilt contributed his first collegiate double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds. If Vanderbilt had not been sidelined with a foot injury it is anyone’s guess how many such games he would have had by now, but with regular minutes the over/under is set at 20.
Vanderbilt is averaging 7.1 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game. Again, this looks at his numbers including games where he was not fully fit or ready to play at the pace of the college game as he joined the fray midseason. Even with that caveat, Vanderbilt is rebounding at a historic pace that puts him on pace to be the leading rebounder Calipari has ever had at Kentucky when the rebounds at taking on a rebound per minute basis.
At that level, Vanderbilt averages 0.47 rebounds per minute or 18.88 over a full 40-minute game. He is quite simply owning the boards.