Why Kentucky's NCAA Tournament prospects rest on Bam Adebayo's shoulders

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It was July of 2015, and I was standing next to a prominent coach at a top-10 college basketball program. We were watching summer basketball at Bishop Gorman High School, and I was seeing Bam Adebayo play for only the second or third time. He was going up against Thon Maker, a future NBA lottery pick, and looking really good in doing so. 

I hadn’t seen too many 17-year-olds look that physically dominant. It was like he was a young, if slightly undersized, Dwight Howard but with an ability to guard the perimeter. 

“That kid, he could be the No. 1 pick in the draft,” the coach told me about Adebayo at the time.   

(No, the coach is not John Calipari.)

Another coach later in the day expressed similar thoughts. I didn’t realize he was this highly regarded.

(That coach wasn’t Cal either.)

But since arriving at Kentucky, Adebayo has been merely ... pretty good. Used to be that was good enough. Now if you carry five stars with your name, play for UK and don’t make All-American or All-Freshman teams (which Adebayo will not), people want to know where it all went wrong. 

Adebayo floats somewhere in between “short of the hype” and “really good college player.”

He’s also the most interesting and potentially important piece on Kentucky’s team. 

A beast of a five-star recruit, UK’s key cog in the middle has maintained his status as projected first-round 2017 pick, but he’s fallen from top-10 status in October to top-30 position now. As such, Adebayo has become underappreciated on a national level. He’s not been as great as expected, but to use a recent example, he’s been so, so much better than another hyped Kentucky big man: Skal Labissiere. 

Perspective is important in this regard. Things could be much worse for him and UK. And if Kentucky is to win the 2017 NCAA Tournament, it won’t be Malik Monk or De’Aaron Fox that decides that. It will be Adebayo’s doing. 

Bam Adebayo has been Kentucky’s unsung piece, a critical player for John Calipari. USATSI

Kentucky has already been really good with Monk and Fox. You hear the “guard play is so important” trope tossed out every hour of March, and I don’t fight that philosophy. But having a big who could wreck shop means something, too. College basketball teams can still get by with bullies around the rim. Few players in college hoops are as physically imposing as Adebayo. The question is production. 

He’s averaging a respectable 13.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in 29.6 minutes. Calipari had frustrations earlier in the season when his team wasn’t feeding its freshman low-post force enough. That’s changed of late, though. Kentucky’s riding an 11-game winning streak. In the past 10 games, Adebayo’s at 14.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per. His efficiency has been remarkable. Adebayo’s shooting 61.4 percent on the year, and 63.3 percent amid UK’s winning streak. As the season’s gone on, he’s gotten better.

The Wildcats have a top-15 offense and a top-10 defense. Essential to the cause on both ends is big boy Bam. This is why I list Adebayo among the lesser-recognized studs who could become March Madness stars in a matter of days.

Down the stretch there have been games where Kentucky’s not had Fox due to injury. And Monk hasn’t shot above 50 percent from the floor since Feb. 7. That hasn’t stopped Kentucky from winning. Adebayo is a huge reason why. Not the only reason, but the biggest. His foul rate is impressive too. He doesn’t put himself on the bench. Adebayo hasn’t fouled out of a game once, and he hasn’t hit the four-foul mark since the Feb. 4 game at Florida — the last time UK lost. 

According to Synergy, Adebayo is hitting at a terrific rate around the basket, scoring 1.37 points per possession. It’s not all work in the key, either. Adebayo has 59 points off 39 possessions in transition. He can get out and go as well. Calipari’s teams need balance and it comes with the big man. The Wildcats aren’t great from 3-point range (if Monk isn’t on, then it gets really interesting), but Adebayo rates as one of the 10 best both-end rebounders in this tournament. 

You can make the argument that Kentucky, the top-ranked No. 2 seed, is a longshot to make it to Phoenix. I’d counter with this: The Wildcats will make an Elite Eight run (meaning a possible revenge defeat of UCLA) if Adebayo is involved. He needs a touch on almost every possession. He should be getting 8-10 attempts, minimally, per game. Fox is a joy of a blur to watch, and Monk is more electric than anyone in college hoops when he’s on— but Adebayo’s success and involvement is the final element. Without him at his best, UK will miss the Final Four for only the third time since John Calipari got to Lexington.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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