Kentucky head coach John Calipari hit the nail on the head on something going into his team’s matchup against Tennessee, but I’m certain he wasn’t happy about being right in this instance.
At his weekly press conference on Friday afternoon, Calipari said it wasn’t necessarily Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield he’s worried about. Everyone knows what those two bring to the table.
In his eyes, Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone was the key player in the top-10 matchup.
“(Jordan) Bone is really the one (to watch out for),” he said. “Bone, in my mind. Williams was obviously the (conference) player of the year a year ago. Possibly again player of the year. (Admiral) Schofield has beat us down. Bone gives them – they’ve got a couple other shooters – but Bone gives them that attack dog who can run, who defends, who gets his hands on balls. He’s really, really good, too.”
Fast forward a day, and just as Calipari predicted, Bone ended up being the difference-maker for Tennessee.
The 6-foot-3 junior out of Nashville, TN was the best player on the floor today, and it really wasn’t close. Finishing with 27 points (11-15 shooting, 5-5 from three), three rebounds, three assists, two steals, and zero turnovers, Bone had a nearly flawless performance on both ends of the floor.
Wherever he wanted to get on the floor, he got there. However he wanted to score, he made it happen.
Matched up with Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans, who finished with one of his worst overall performances as a Wildcat, Bone proved to be the superior guard, at least this time around. Hagans managed a statline of five points (2-6 shooting), five rebounds, three assists, one steal, and two turnovers, but that doesn’t begin to tell the entire story.
Not once did the Kentucky point guard look comfortable, forcing poor shots and making horrible decisions as a passer on offense, all while giving up basket after basket on the defensive end. Hagans was manhandled, plain and simple.
“He played great. He ran downhill on us,” Calipari said following today’s game. “We were trying to run the same stuff and get our guy to run down hill. We didn’t quite accomplish it. He also made runners. Our bigs were getting out of the way too fast. They didn’t trust the people behind them. When you are playing that kind of basketball, the big has to stay and trust someone behind him is going to help him. They ducked out and Bone went down and shot a lot of layups.”
While Hagans wasn’t available for comment, freshman guard Immanuel Quickley gave his account of Bone’s performance against the Kentucky backcourt.
“He is a really good guard,” he said. “He is fast and quick. He was able to get to his spots. He is experienced too. He knew where to be on the floor and how to get his teammates the ball. He really led his guys today.”
For Bone, he said his performance today was a product of the work he’s been putting in each day during practice.
“It’s definitely a confidence-booster,” he said. “It shows that the hard work has been paying off. Just to be able to knock down those shots in a moment like this, it means a lot. I’m just gonna continue to do what I do, man. I’m just gonna continue to work, and hopefully it’s gonna continue to show up at the right times.”
When asked about how they responded to Kentucky’s late (yet brief) push in the second half, Bone said that while he’s extremely impressed with the UK backcourt, he knew his team could execute down the stretch.
“I feel like the flow of the game, understanding the game, I feel like that’s a huge advantage that we have over the younger guys,” Bone said. “Those [Kentucky] guys are terrific, man. They know how to play the game. But I feel like understanding the game, understanding that down the stretch we had to execute, we had to get these guys in long possessions, ‘cause we knew that they wanted to come back, they wanted to get the ball up the floor quick. We had to make these guys guard for 23, 24 seconds, so they couldn’t just get up the court quick.”
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said he couldn’t have been happier with Bone’s performance, saying his guard’s confidence has improved tremendously, allowing for this growth to happen.
“He logged a lot of minutes in December, and I think it helped him,” he said. “He is playing more than 10 minutes a game than he was a year ago, but I do think those minutes were really valuable to him. Early in December, I thought he got more and more confident and started to understand more and more what a point guard had to do. You can just tell that he did some things on his own today when he called some things and a real feel for their teammates. He did a good job from our stand point on just orchestrating the game.”
When asked about what was different with Bone’s performance today compared to two weeks ago in Lexington, Barnes said his point guard was extremely locked in on both ends of the floor. That bled into his entire team this afternoon.
“Defensively, I wasn’t pleased with anybody (at Kentucky),” he said. “We were just telling our guys to not be emotional but be more intense because they beat us every way you can be beaten. We just felt like we had to be really locked in. I think I would say that with every guy in this difference. They were more focused on what had to be done and that is not to take anything away from Kentucky, because they are an outstanding team. They are hard to score against. I thought it was a real tough defensive battle. It might have been the best we have been, but we didn’t make enough shots.”
As Nick Richards said after the game, we’ll likely have round three of Kentucky vs. Tennessee down in Nashville here in two weeks.
Back to the drawing board.