Kentucky, Illinois Biggest Disappointments thus Far, Work to do for March

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When the college basketball season began, the Illinois Fighting Illini and Kentucky Wildcats were both receiving favorable odds when it came to the NCAA Tournament. Rated quite high in the preseason polls, the March Madness prospects for both UK and the Illini were looking quite promising.

When the season began, Kentucky had the sixth most favorable national title odds at around 13/1 or (+1300). The Wildcats Final Four odds were even better in late November, only three teams (Gonzaga, Villanova and Baylor) were backed better to reach the final weekend of March Madness.

The Cats were typically priced at about +200 or 2/1 for that bet. Now if you’re gearing up for March Madness like they do at 22Bet you’ll notice Kentucky is among the longer of long shots. They’re still in the top 20 though, priced at +4000 to win it all. Maybe some of that is due to the fact that they were ranked #10 in the AP preseason poll. Sitting at 4-8, 3-2 in the league right now, they have a ton of work to do, just to make it into the tournament.

UK’s 1-6 start really hurt them, badly, but their 3-0 start in conference play conveys that you cannot completely rule them out just yet. They’re very young and inexperienced, even by program standards, where every team is young and inexperienced every year, due to the high amount of turnover.

It’s common for a Kentucky team to get better as the season goes on, and hit its stride during March. How does John Calipari get his team to do that once again this year?

“We have to figure out what’s next and how we get this thing on offense,” Calipari responded when this question was put to him after their most recent game, a loss to Auburn.

“We are a different kind of team. Inside-out 3s and how we play, we are built differently. But when you’re trying to throw to the post and that guy isn’t catching it, that becomes tough. Olivier (Sarr) has got to start dominating games. I’m telling you, stop worrying about offense and go rebound. Drive to get fouled instead of flipping and avoiding.

“There are points in the game where I’m proud of these guys and there are other points in the game that I’m thinking, what in the world are we doing?”

That’s a pretty good summation by Coach Cal- Kentucky has struggled with finding real coherent offensive flow, all season long. Shooting has been an issue much of the time as well. They do have a couple top 100 Net wins, however, including an impressive victory over arch-rival Florida. Up next is a trip to Georgia on Wednesday night.

As for Illinois, this is just a team that has metrics and stats that are far superior to their record. They began the season ranked #8 in the polls, but fell all the way from #13 in the USA Today coaches poll to #24. They are the only five loss team to be nationally ranked, and one more setback will surely see them dropped from the polls altogether.

That’s the polls talking though. In terms of metric rankings, the Illini are still #9 nationally. In KenPom they’re #11, and they still boast the sixth best national title odds at +1600.

brad underwood

Not sure what team the people ranking them this high are watching. Or maybe they missed the Illini’s last four games? Illinois looked pretty bad for long stretches in all of them, but they did manage to get a 2-2 split over that span. Home losses to Maryland and Ohio State conveyed periods where the Illini just didn’t look interested enough.

The same was true versus Purdue and Northwestern, but they had other stretches of play that were stellar enough to overcome it. To put it bluntly, Illinois goes with optional defending for 10, 15, almost 20 minutes spans, at times. That simply won’t cut it come tournament time.

The Illini haven’t been to the second weekend of March Madness since 2005, and they won’t go back this year if they continue taking entire halves off.

You can’t blame Ayo Dosunmu though, he’s been as good as anybody in the nation this year. Kofi Cockburn has made some good strides this season, but he still has a ways to go. Everybody else has a ton of room for improvement. It’s not that Illinois has been bad this year, it’s just that the idea of them being ranked in the top five (as they were early on) is laughable.

Even their marquee win, at Duke in December, has aged poorly. Duke fell out of the national rankings for the first time since 2016 today.

The Illini take on Penn State tomorrow, and their next weekend contest, versus Michigan State, has been called off due to a virus outbreak at MSU.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of  “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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