FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Kevin Knox poked fun at himself for an airballed 3-pointer. He and teammates PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt snickered at each other’s answers at the postgame podium. Well, Vanderbilt scowled at a joke about his missed dunk, but everyone else thought it was a hoot.
“We’ll just laugh it off in film,” Knox said after a thoroughly impressive 87-72 win at Arkansas on Tuesday night. “Just brush that off in film, be funny and laughing. Now, if we’d lost, it would be something totally different.”
You see, winning is a cure and Kentucky basketball is suddenly much healthier, in spirit and NCAA Tournament resume. Smiles are back, NIT talk has vanished, and the weight of a four-game losing streak is long gone, giving way to the joy and confidence that comes with consecutive quality wins.
It’s one thing to stomp the gas in the final five minutes against Alabama when you’re playing at home and desperate, which the Wildcats were and did Saturday, but it’s something altogether different to fall behind 11-0 and 15-5 at the terror dome known as Bud Walton Arena and then roar back to outscore the Razorbacks by 25 points during the final 35 minutes.
“We had a four-game losing streak,” Vanderbilt said, grinning as Knox ran with the gag: “I don’t remember that at all. I just remember the last two games.”
In those two straight victories, Kentucky (19-9, 8-7 SEC) has found its winning lineup: Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox, Washington and Vanderbilt. Starters Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards have become glued to the bench, especially in winning time.
“I did away with the rotation,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Because everybody took advantage. They just did what they wanted to do because they knew they were going in. So we have no rotation now. It’s that time of year: I’ve just got to ride with the guys that are getting it done.”
POSTGAME Q&A: Everything Calipari said after the win at Arkansas
To that end, Gilgeous-Alexander played 39 minutes, Knox 38, Green 34, Washington 31 and Vanderbilt, who is still working his way back from a foot injury that cost him Kentucky’s first 17 games, played 19 minutes. Diallo got 10 minutes and Richards only 7.
“We’re starting to figure it out, and especially me,” Calipari said. “I just told them, I said, ‘You know, we struggled a little bit early, weren’t where we needed to be, and then we added Jarred and it took us another three weeks. And now we’ve settled in.’ About 10 days ago, I had a meeting and gave them their roles: ‘This is your role on this team. Can you do it? Because if you can’t, I can’t play you.’ ”
Clearly, the Finishing Five nodded in the affirmative. That quintet alone outscored and outrebounded Arkansas’ entire team.
Knox had 23 points, 7 rebounds, 3 made 3-pointers and 2 steals Tuesday. Gilgeous-Alexander was brilliant with 18 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, while Green added 12 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists — and those two guards combined for just 3 turnovers.
Washington delivered only his second double-double of the season: 13 points and 10 boards to go with 3 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals. And Vanderbilt, with 11 points and 9 boards, continued his ascension into indispensable status. Collectively, the Cats crushed Arkansas on the glass, same as they did Alabama.
Kentucky has outrebounded each of its last two opponents by 17 and had a total of 3 turnovers in the final 11 minutes of both those games. With 13:16 to go Tuesday, the Razorbacks (19-9, 8-7 SEC) actually led by 5. Then the Wildcats scored 9 straight points and delivered a 22-4 run in the span of 6-plus minutes and it was all over but the shouting.
“I’ll tell you, I’m proud,” Calipari said. “To be able to come in here — this is a hard place to play — for us to do this as a young team …”
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson doesn’t want to hear about Kentucky’s youth, even if its winning combination is five freshmen compared to his team, which starts four seniors.
“They’re not freshmen anymore,” he said. “They’re athletic, they’re long and they’re figuring it out.”
There’s a sign inside Bud Walton Arena warning opponents that it is the toughest place to play in the SEC. The Hogs have won the fourth-most home games in college basketball over the last seven seasons, entered Tuesday 14-1 there this season and had beaten Kentucky in four of the last five meetings in Fayetteville.
“They said this is one of the toughest in the SEC?” Vanderbilt asked afterward, to which Washington replied: “I didn’t see that sign.”
Suddenly all signs are pointing to Kentucky putting its many tall and talented pieces together just in the nick of time. Three regular-season games remain — home against Missouri and Ole Miss, then at Florida — and an SEC Tournament to see if the improvement sticks. Then it’s on to what the Wildcats hope is a seventh deep NCAA Tournament run in nine years under Calipari.
“We’ve settled down a lot,” Vanderbilt said. “I feel like through each practice, through each game, we’ve gotten better at late-game situations, kind of been more poised going down the stretch.”
That, and they’re smiling a lot more these days.