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Mark Story

Mark Story: As February looms, the question persists: Is UK going to make the NCAA Tournament?

After Kentucky disappointed an electric Rupp Arena crowd of 20,418 by falling to then-No. 9 Kansas 77-68 Saturday night in the final SEC/Big 12 Challenge, an uncomfortable reality hangs over the 2022-23 UK season.

February is at hand, and John Calipari’s Wildcats (14-7, 5-3) are living precariously on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

First things first. “Big-game Rupp Arena” boasts one of the foremost atmospheres in major American sports. That was on full display Saturday evening when Bill Self brought the defending NCAA champions to Lexington.

“Unbelievable crowd. Unbelievable students were there,” UK’s Calipari said, correctly, afterward. “You want to reward them as a coach and as a team. You want to do that.”

Other than an improbable afternoon in Knoxville three Saturdays ago, the Big Blue Nation has not gotten much reward so far in the 2022-23 UK men’s hoops season.

On the eve of February, the pertinent question about UK basketball is whether the Wildcats are even going to make the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

As Kentucky’s NCAA tourney resume stands going into Tuesday night’s game at struggling Mississippi (9-12, 1-7 SEC), UK has a solitary Quad One win (the 63-56 upset of then-No. 5 Tennessee on Jan. 14) and has the albatross of a horrid Quad Four loss (the inexplicable 71-68 home-court defeat at the hands of lowly South Carolina on Jan. 10).

The updated bracketology for the Cats is not encouraging. Jerry Palm of had UK in the First Four in his post-Kansas-loss projections.

After falling to Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, Calipari stressed the positive. “We got a lot of games left,” the UK coach said. “This is a marathon. We’ve got games and we’ve just got to keep getting better.”

For what it’s worth, I still believe Kentucky will make the NCAA Tournament. But, if the Cats are going have a chance this season to record their first NCAA tourney win since March 29, 2019, at least three things have to happen.

1. UK and Calipari have to get their pick-and-roll defense figured out.

Ever since Alabama’s Nate Oats exposed what has so far been Kentucky’s extreme vulnerability to the high pick-and-roll, wise opponents have gone out of their way to force UK star Oscar Tshiebwe to have to defend against that action.

For all his many hoops attributes, Tshiebwe can’t seem to stay out of no-man’s land — caught in between the ball handler driving and the screener rolling to the basket — when defending against the high pick-and-roll.

“I’ll be candid — we hoped to attack them in the pick-and-roll,” the Jayhawks’ Self said after KU had repeatedly abused the UK defense off of high ball screens. “... I don’t know how many points we scored off ball screens — but it had to be close to 20 tonight. So that was really good for us.”

2. Kentucky really needs to knock down some threes against high-level foes.

In its five games against ranked teams in 2022-23, UK has shot a woeful 25.3 percent, 24-of-95, on three-point attempts. That lack of efficiency from behind the arc is a big reason Kentucky is 1-4 against foes ranked in the AP Top 25.

Former Covington Catholic star CJ Fredrick had another cold shooting performance vs. Kansas, going 1-of-8 overall and 0-of-5 on treys.

“It just wasn’t his day,” Calipari said afterward of Fredrick.

In what I would classify as marquee contests this season, Fredrick, a 6-foot-3, 185-pound redshirt senior, has made 6-of-29 three-point shots. That is a far cry from the 46.6 three-point percentage that Fredrick compiled as a two-year starter at Iowa before transferring to Kentucky.

Is Fredrick pressing? Is his shot impacted by the series of leg injuries he’s faced in the past and/or the finger injury he suffered this season?

Fredrick’s ability to feed the post and the reputation he brought from Iowa as an outside-shooting threat tends to improve the spacing of the Kentucky offense even when his shot isn’t falling.

Still, I keep expecting Fredrick’s outside shooting to trend back upward toward his career percentages, but, so far, that keeps not happening.

3. Kentucky has to log some marquee wins in February.

Calipari is right that the UK schedule still offers the Wildcats bountiful resume-building targets.

Of UK’s final 10 regular-season games, five — Arkansas, at Mississippi State, Tennessee, at Florida and at Arkansas — are presently opportunities for Quad One wins. A home game with Auburn, currently rated No. 31 in the NET Rankings, could easily become a Quad One chance for Kentucky, too.

In a season that, so far, has mostly been defined by Kentucky missing opportunities, the Wildcats’ postseason aspirations all but assuredly rest on the Wildcats seizing on their remaining big chances.

Says Calipari: “We are not, you know, where we need to be but we are not certainly where we were.”

As February looms, the Wildcats have every reason to be hearing the clock ticking on their chances to make the NCAA tourney.

©2023 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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