LEXINGTON, Ky. – Looking for a reason Kentucky can make its fifth Final Four in eight seasons under coach John Calipari? Look no further than the star freshman point guard who roared back to early season form just in time to lead the Wildcats to an SEC Tournament title last week.
“What’s happened right now is De’Aaron Fox has really come on,” said Calipari, whose current 11-game winning streak was punctuated by a demolition of Arkansas in the league championship game. “He’s shooting the ball better, making free throws. How about playing through bumps? Do you remember he would drive and (avoid contact) and just throw it? And now, all of a sudden, he’s connecting, hitting, making and-ones, getting to the foul line.”
Fox scored 20, 28 and 18 points in Kentucky’s three wins in Nashville, where he won Most Valuable Player at the SEC Tournament, hitting 61.8 percent from the field and shooting a total of 30 free throws. In other words, Calipari said, “you’re seeing him break through.”
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More accurately: Fox is breaking through again. Through his first 18 college games, Fox averaged 16.7 points, 6.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals. He used breathtaking speed to leave opponents reaching for air, and at that point an argument could be made that he was the nation’s best point guard.
But then he turned an ankle against South Carolina on Jan. 21 and looked like a slower version of himself upon returning for losses to Tennessee and Kansas. That was followed by the flu, forcing Fox to miss a week of practice and the Cats’ Jan. 31 overtime scare against Georgia. Finally, for good measure, he bruised a knee, missed the Feb. 25 win over Florida and delivered just one assist and five turnovers in his return against Vanderbilt.
In an ugly eight-game stretch, Fox sat out twice and shot just 38.7 percent from the field – 1 for 11 from 3-point range – in the other six. His NBA draft stock slipped and Kentucky looked at times like a rudderless ship without its offensive leader in top form. But now?
“De’Aaron seems healthy,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said, “which is so important, because De’Aaron changes everything. His speed and his explosiveness, knowing he can have the ball at the end of a shot clock or the end of a game and make the right play. And he’s shooting the ball better. To me, that’s a huge advantage.”
After hitting just 8 of 50 3-pointers to start the season, Fox has hit 7 of 12 from deep over the past six games. And to Greenberg’s point about his ability to deliver in crunch time: Fox scored 14 points in the final 6 ½ minutes against Alabama, 9 points in the final 3:49 against Arkansas and 6 points in the final 1:42 against Georgia last week.
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So yeah, super scorer Malik Monk is important for Kentucky. And sure, big man Bam Adebayo needs to dominate inside. The recent surge of seniors Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins gives the Wildcats the kind of glue guys every championship team needs. But Fox makes it all go.
“He’s that guy,” Greenberg said, “because he makes the game easier for Monk, for Willis, for Bam because he can get in the lane and draw a second defender and flip it to the rim. He changes the game for them.”