The Kentucky Wildcats have more 100-point games (five) than any of John Calipari-coached teams. They play, on average, one of the fastest paces in the country and can further speed up the game with 3/4-court and full-court defensive pressure. All that makes them one of America’s most watchable teams.

Must-see team in March? Absolutely. NCAA Tournament favorite or even title contender? That’s less clear. 

Kentucky has spent most of this calendar year hanging around the top-10 in the rankings and bouncing between the 2-seed and 3-seed line in the Bracketology picture. Traditional analysis of what it takes to be a title-winner at least puts the Wildcats in the conversation. 

But since this is Kentucky, which has reached the Elite Eight or better in five of Calipari’s seven seasons in Lexington. Scrutiny is tougher because the standard is higher. When you reload with lottery picks, every year spawns a new superteam with national title expectations.   

The Wildcats haven’t played 40 minutes of national championship-caliber basketball often, but they’ve shown enough to be taken seriously. So here are the cases for and against the Wildcats as an NCAA Tournament favorite. 

A case for: Monk can shoot anyone out of a gym

Monk can drop 30 points in a half on any night in any gym against any opponent. If the Wildcats are going to win six straight games in the NCAA Tournament, Monk’s going to go off at some point. That’s not to say there aren’t frustrations with streaky play alongside his 20- and 30-point second-half performances, but no team in the country has a player as potentially prolific. 

Monk has nine 25-point games, two more than any Kentucky player has had under Calipari. He’s a killer deep threat when hot, and arguably more dangerous when he puts the ball on the floor. Even though the freshman is a flawed star whose shot selection occasionally frustrates his coach, the light stays green for No. 5. 

No game better revealed Monk’s ability to elevate his game on the biggest stage than dropping 47 points on North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic, powering a 103-100 win in the game of the year (so far). 

A case against: Too many close calls

Six of the seven outings of an ongoing seven-game winning streak have been decided by 10 points or less. Only one of those teams, Florida, has a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament. Playing close games against non-tournament teams doesn’t bode too well for winning six straight against better competition with no letdown. 

And what happens if that Monk goes cold for an entire game, like he did in an 88-66 loss at Florida on Feb. 9? Riding or dying with Jamal Murray stung the Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament last season, losing to Indiana in the second round. Isaiah Briscoe, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins have delivered in clutch spots during these close SEC games but might not have the same matchup advantages in the NCAA Tournament. 

To their credit, it seems like everyone in the Kentucky locker room knows there are more games like the Vanderbilt game ahead. 

“We’re going to play games in the SEC Tournament, the NCAA Tournament when a team comes out on fire [and] we’re down a quick 10, quick 12, maybe even 19 like today,” Briscoe said Tuesday night after erasing a 19-point deficit to beat Vanderbilt 73-67. “It’s how we come back in the game and how we continue to fight.” 

A case for: Adebayo getting comfortable

The big man is finally getting comfortable, and the result has been a more balanced offensive attack less reliant on perimeter shooting and guard play. Adebayo is averaging 18.7 points and 12 rebounds his past three games and starting to show top-level conditioning. He’s been more active around the rim where he can use his physical tools to get rebounds and putbacks, and he’s athletic enough too to guard all five positions and switch on screens on the perimeter. 

Calipari is looking for energy, effort and fight out Kentucky. There may be no better indicator of that than Adebayo’s recent contributions. He’s a barometer for Kentucky. When Adebayo is running the floor, swatting shots and gobbling up rebounds it’s a bad sign for the opponent. 

A case against: Health, bench production

De’Aaron Fox returned to practice Monday after sitting out five or six days because of a knee contusion. He played through the injury against Vanderbilt but struggled, committing five turnovers and missing a few easy looks at the rim. Calipari seemed happy to get him back, but Fox didn’t look right. 

Having Fox healthy may be as important as Adebayo’s development because life without the point guard exposes another reason for concern: depth.

Kentucky’s rotation is only about eight deep and point distribution has skewed heavily not only to starters but also to the freshman trio of Monk, Adebayo and Fox. They are on pace to be the most productive group of freshman since John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, which comes with the knock that this season’s team isn’t well-rounded enough to make a deep tournament run. 

A case for AND against: KenPom profile vs. previous champs 

Kentucky still has data points left before its final profile is set. Since 2010, most national championship teams have been ranked in the top-10 of KenPom’s rankings in adjusted offensive efficiency or adjusted defensive efficiency, and four times the title-winner has been top-10 in both. 

Kentucky fits the profile so far when compared to the past, but stacked up against its peers the Wildcats fall into the second tier of contenders. Villanova, North Carolina and Kansas all have top-five offensive ratings while Louisville and Gonzaga all have top-five defensive ratings. Calipari has been harping on the importance of the experience and growth he’s witnessing throughout this young team, but the results haven’t charted out to that of a top-tier title contender. 

But again, there’s still time left in the season. When Kentucky is all-in for 40 minutes, there’s no better team in the country. If that happens, these numbers will change, and if it happens for six straight games in a row the Wildcats are cutting down the nets in Glendale on April 3. 

Team Year Adj Off (KenPom.com) Adj Def (KenPom.com)
Kentucky 2017 13 11
Villanova 2016 3 5
Duke 2015 3 12
UConn 2014 39 10
Louisville 2013 7 1
Kentucky 2012 2 8
UConn 2011 20 15
Duke 2010 1 5