One of the cool things about my job here at KSR, is that this is the first time in my career that Iâ€™ve ever really been a â€œbeat writer.â€ In the past Iâ€™ve spent so much time covering the national scene (and still do) that I havenâ€™t had time to really follow a team from start to finish, watch them grow, watch them get better and watch them mature as the season has gone on.
Therefore, you can imagine how much fun Iâ€™m having covering this particular Kentucky team. It certainly isnâ€™t the most talented of the Calipari era (or at least doesnâ€™t appear to be at this point in the season anyway) but itâ€™s also a group thatâ€™s impossible not to like. A group that â€“ at least right now â€“ plays hard, plays for each other, and oh by the way is getting better with every game. Had you asked me what the ceiling was for this team after the Kansas game, I would have said â€œnot good.â€ Only here we are less than two months later and Iâ€™m genuinely intrigued to see what this team is capable of by March.
And no place was that more evident than on Wednesday night in Baton Rouge. While some will look at a 74-71 win over LSU as not very impressive (more on that coming) I think itâ€™s the opposite. In a true road environment, this young team handled itself well, and â€“ like they have as the competition has improved the last few weeks â€“ seems to be getting better with each and every game.
Iâ€™ve done takeaways columns recently after both the UCLA and Louisville games and have found them incredibly therapeutic â€“ here are some thoughts on Wednesdayâ€™s win over LSU:
What in the world has gotten into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander?
So, Jack had his magic beanstalk beans. Popeye had his spinach. Mark McGwire had copious amounts of steroids. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has his new haircut, apparently. Honestly, the new haircut is the only logical explanation for the sudden uptick in Gilgeous-Alexanderâ€™s game, and itâ€™s clear that his barberâ€™s clippers gave him super powers. Thatâ€™s really the only explanation Iâ€™ve got.
In all seriousness, I canâ€™t ever remember a single player, making a single bigger leap in a shorter amount of time than Gilgeous-Alexander has in these last few games. For months we were told how much potential Gilgeous-Alexander had and it seems like itâ€™s finally all clicked since the Louisville game (the first with the new haircut).
Looking at his numbers tells the entire story. In his last three games, Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 21 points and four assists per game, and the best part he hasnâ€™t forced any of it. He has only attempted 41 total shots in those three games (an average of about 14 a game) and has been a hyper-efficient 51 percent from the field. He also isnâ€™t a great three-point shooter at this point in his career, and has limited himself to just five attempts over that stretch, preferring to attack the basket.Â In the process, he is also showing off skills that most of us (or at least me) didnâ€™t know he had, including those wild, lefty finishes in the lane. Point being, that in the last three games, Gilgeous-Alexander has been the teamâ€™s best (and most efficient) scorer, distributor and finisher. Not bad for one the â€œlowerâ€ rated recruits in this freshman class, huh?
By the way, you know what the best part of Gilgeous-Alexanderâ€™s night was Wednesday against LSU? In addition to everything he did offensively, he also perfectly defended Tremont Waters last shot defensively as well. He kept Waters in front of him, and when LSUâ€™s freshman guard tried to jump into him to create a foul, Gilgeous-Alexander backed off and watched as the shot missed wildly. Thatâ€™s the kind of basketball smarts you simply canâ€™t teach.
Now granted, Iâ€™m not sold that this all means that Gilgeous-Alexander is going to springboard to the NBA like some do. But right now he is a really, REALLY good player for Kentucky. And apparently, itâ€™s all thanks to a haircut.
Wednesday also marked the best game of P.J. Washingtonâ€™s young career as well
For those of you who have followed my work here on KSR over the last few months, you know that my relationship with Washington has basically been like that of two teens that have just begun dating. I loved him to start the season, then I hated him, then I wasnâ€™t really sure, then I didnâ€™t like him, and after last night, I love him again. Safe to say if we were in a relationship on Facebook, this whole thing would definitely be â€œcomplicated.â€
The simple truth is however that Wednesday night unequivocally marked the best game heâ€™s played at Kentucky, and showed exactly what heâ€™s capable of being. After a slow start, he was dynamite in the second half as a guy who found little seems in the defense, and was able to throw down one uncontested dunk after the other. I went back and looked at the game log this morning just to make sure my eyes didnâ€™t deceive me, and nope, Washington was every bit as good as I thought. Not only did he finish with 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting, but went five for five from the field in the second half.
On this particular team, Washington doesnâ€™t need to be great. But on a night where the front-court was limited because of a flu bug, the Wildcats needed him to step up. And he did just that in Baton Rouge.
Speaking of the flu:
Itâ€™s funny because as the game was going on, I kind of wondered why a couple guys â€“ mostly Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards â€“ werenâ€™t playing very much, especially late in the game. Specifically, Diallo had a couple of questionable decisions early on and I wondered if John Calipari was sitting him late as a form of â€œpunishment.â€
Instead, as it turned out, apparently the Wildcats were dealing with a darn-near team-wide case of the flu. Who knew??
(By the way, with all the money the Wildcats spend on facilities, dorms, travel and overall other basketball expenses, you would have thought they could spare a few bucks for flu shots? Kidding, kidding)
Honestly though, does anyone else kind of wonder if the team-wide illness was kind of a blessing in disguise? It allowed other guys ranging from Gilgeous-Alexander, Washington and Wenyen Gabriel to get big minutes and crunch-time reps down the stretch.
Look, depth is great. But the minutes that those guys played Wednesday should be invaluable going forward.
Speaking of Wenyen Gabriel
If youâ€™ve been reading these little recaps I do after some of the biggest games, you know that Iâ€™ve spent the last few weeks raving about Wenyen Gabriel. He was basically the only guy who came to play against UCLA (a sentiment shared by John Calipari) and was great against Louisville as well. Last night was no different.
And really, Gabriel is the perfect example of why itâ€™s so important to watch the games, rather than just look at the box scores. If you simply look at the box score, youâ€™d see a guy who played 22 minutes, had just four points and four rebounds and say â€œMeh, what a forgettable game.â€
Of course if you watched the game you know that Gabriel once again played an important 22 minutes. He hit a big three-pointer (just like he did late against Georgia), and also grabbed a couple big loose ball rebounds, including one with under two minutes to go which gave Kentucky an extra possession, which let them burn an extra 30 seconds off the clock and ended with a Gilgeous-Alexander layup which gave the Wildcats a four-point lead Kentucky would never relinquish.
As I said a few days back after the Louisville game, not every kid can be a star, and for any team to be successful they need guys who are willing to come in off the bench, play a role, and help their team win with all the little plays. Gabriel appears to be that guy.
My favorite part of Wednesdayâ€™s game had nothing to do with basketball
Want to know what my favorite part of Wednesdayâ€™s game was? Iâ€™m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point (I believe in the first half), the broadcaster was referencing how much tougher things have gotten under new coach Will Wade at LSU, and he dropped a gem that sounded a little something like this:
â€œWe were at walk-through today and the Tigers were working hard! I tell ya, weâ€™ve been to practices here in Baton Rouge that werenâ€™t as tough as that walk-through today.â€
Favorite thing about that Kentucky-LSU game: When the announcer said "LSU's walk through today was tougher than some of their practices in previous years." Like, what was Johnny Jones doing while he was there? Watching cartoons in the film room?
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) January 4, 2018
As one of Johnny Jonesâ€™ biggest critics through the years, Iâ€™ve got to ask: What the hell was Jones doing at practice when he was head coach at LSU thatâ€¦ WALK THROUGHS ARE NOW TOUGHER THAN HIS PRACTICES WERE?
Seriously, what exactly did LSU do at practice during that stretch? Play heated games of â€œH-O-R-S-E?â€ Spend hours practicing trick shots? Watch cartoons in the film room? Play duck, duck, goose to determine rotations? I need answers dammit!!!
I mean I knew Johnny Jones was bad, but that comment alone is next level stuff. I really hope that we get one of those â€œSEC Storiedâ€ documentaries on the Johnny Jones era in the next few years.
With that said, LSU is much improved and this win is important
Although I just spent the last 250 or so words crushing Johnny Jones (because if I donâ€™t, who will?), I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I respect the hell out of what Will Wade has done this year at LSU. He has taken a steaming pile of hot trash, put out the fire, sorted out the parts, and what youâ€™ve got left is a decent, rapidly-improving basketball program.
Seriously, Iâ€™ve been on the Tigers since the opening game of the Maui Invitational when they shocked a good Michigan club, and it was at that moment I realized that LSU was going to be much improved under Wade. They have since proven me right, with a solid win against Houston (a potential NCAA Tournament team) and a win last week at Memphis. I know that Memphis is bad this year, but remember, LSU was picked to finish dead last in the SEC in the preseason. How many clubs picked to finish last in power conferences would you say could have definitively won at Memphis? Iâ€™m guessing Pitt wouldnâ€™t have. Same with Georgetown or DePaul in the Big East, or Washington State in the Pac-12.
Therefore, thatâ€™s also why I was so impressed with Kentucky on Wednesday night. Not because the LSU game will go down as this teamâ€™s most memorable game (it wonâ€™t), and not because they donâ€™t need work (they do, especially on perimeter defense). Instead, itâ€™s because the Wildcats went into a road gym for the first time as a team, were short-handed because of illness, played a rapidly improving club with decent talent (including a potential future All-SEC guard in Tremont Waters) and still managed to get a win.
It wasnâ€™t always pretty, but considering the circumstances it was an important win none the less.
It also helped explain why John Calipari often likes to say â€œYup, I like this team.â€