LEXINGTON, Ky. — Somebody asked a shell-shocked Mark Fox on Tuesday night if he thought Kentucky had figured things out over the past two games.
Fox’s words — “I’m not sure, you would have to ask John (Calipari) that” — said one thing. His face said another.
Yes, UGA’s historically bad shooting and clumsy offense had a lot to do with Kentucky being able to win by 34 points. But the Wildcats had something to do with that, too. And the other end of the court, well, it looked like the same old powerful Big Blue.
It’s still too soon to pronounce Kentucky back. Win some more big games on the road, and then it will be time.
But by thumping Florida and UGA by a combined 53 points, and without Alex Poythress, it sure looks like Kentucky is rounding into form.
“I think guys are just starting to understand their roles on the team,” said freshman forward Skal Labissiere, who until recently had symbolized the relative disappointment of this team. “Coach Cal did a really good job at putting all of us in the right position to succeed and I think that has been the biggest adjustment.”
After watching this version of Kentucky in person, here are some impressions:
Guards win, and so can Kentucky
This isn’t big, bad Kentucky, in the sense of no massive front line. Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and company, or Anthony Davis and company.
But guards can take you a long way in March, and Kentucky has them.
Tyler Ulis is reminiscent of smaller guards like T.J. Ford and Ty Lawson. Both were slightly bigger, but Ulis has great basketball smarts, and you can still win big in college basketball with a 5-foot-9 point guard.
“He’s just such a smart player,” Kentucky assistant John Robic said. “He sees a play ahead. He’s a great anticipator.”
Jamal Murray is a mismatch at shooting guard and can hit 3-pointers from anywhere. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t too shabby either.
Calipari has committed to a three-guard lineup, and it may have taken some time for everyone to get comfortable, but now it’s working.
Jamal Murray is special
As this reporter was heading to the postgame locker room, he overheard a couple media members comparing Murray to Kobe Bryant. Well, let’s not go crazy quite yet.
But Murray is very, very good. He can hit deep 3-pointers, and is big enough (6-4, 207) to drive or sneak inside and create mismatches.
“I’m just finally hitting shots. I don’t really feel like I’m hot or anything. I’m just hitting a ton of baskets and shots that I should be making,” Murray said. “It was frustrating earlier when I wasn’t hitting shots that I knew I could. I think that affected my game a lot with going games without hitting those shots knowing the team needs me to hit those shots, especially I just have to get my confidence up and get my teammates involved too. I try to be the all-around player and rebound.”
Kentucky’s defense is underrated
One sign of a very good team is one that plays tight defense far away from the hoop, pushing the ball-handlers out, and also closing out the passing lanes. And doing it on basically every possession.
That’s what we saw from Kentucky on Tuesday night. It was part of the reason UGA was so bad; leading scorer J.J. Frazier came in averaging 19.6 points in his past six games, and he was held to four, all on free throws.
The post defense may not be as great as when Davis was swatting shots left and right, but Marcus Lee (41 blocks this year) and Labissiere (40) are no slouches. Either way, if your perimeter defense is strong, taking away the other team’s ability to hit 3s, that’s bigger in college basketball.
Calipari doesn’t get enough credit for his actual coaching. Right now, he and his staff are coaching defense very well.
Having said all that …
The reason still to worry about Kentucky? It’s still much, much better at home. And as much as its fans will make it seem at home, the NCAA tournament will still be played at neutral sites.
Taking Kansas to overtime on the road was a good step. Winning on Saturday at South Carolina, a sneaky tough place to play, would be another good one. And then there are three tough road games — Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida — where the young Wildcats will either keep improving, or reinforce those concerns.
Of course there’s also the tactical reason to still doubt the Wildcats: The front line will still be a problem against bigger teams that can exploit it. The return of Alex Poythress will help, assuming he does come back soon. Calipari said he’s two weeks away.
Kentucky now looks like it can still win the SEC, whether it be in the regular season or in Nashville. When it comes to the NCAA tournament, it will be a matter of match-ups.
Yes, that means a national championship is unlikely, because going 6-for-6 on getting the right match-up never happens. But another run to the Final Four wouldn’t be surprising.