After 30 hours, 600 miles, one win, and probably three gallons of caffeine, I am back →
Let me start this post by thanking all of you for the tremendous feedback we have gotten on the new KSR app.. Folks seem to really like it and you guys have been great with all your comments. We spent a lot of time trying to make it right and I think we have done a pretty good job with it so I am glad people seem to like it. We hope to continue to make it better in the weeks/months to come and by next season, it will be an even bigger part of your UK Gameday experience.
A couple of notes:
— UK extended its deal with Nike for eight more years at a total cost of $30 million. With the two years that were remaining on the current deal, that means UK will be a Nike school until at least 2025, thus meaning no awful Adidas gimmicks in these parts. Some have asked what those numbers mean and it basically means that UK will get a cash payment of a little over half of that $30 million over the course of the eight years and the rest goes for free equipment for all the sports. It is a very common deal that you see at virtually every school and it is the 7th largest of any Nike school (football schools tend to get more for obvious reasons). Adidas and Under Armour pay more than Nike to their schools (like Louisville for instance), but then you are stuck wearing Adidas gear…and who wants that.
— It has gone underreported due to the basketball madness, but Kentucky now has 14 commitments in the 2016 class, an absurdly high number. When one considers that a class can only have 25 players, if all these commits were to stick, then UK would be over halfway done with the class and we are just a little under a year from Signing Day. Of course, that isn’t how this usually works, as we learned this year. Decommitments can happen and my guess is this early rush is a response to last season. Kentucky is trying to find its talent and get commitments early, but also allow themselves the time and resources to have backup options. Of the 14 current commitments, nine are from Ohio, further showcasing how this program is basically becoming Southern Ohio in the football recruiting world.
— We are really good at basketball. I thought last night’s win was the most impressive yet in conference play, because of the unique circumstances of the environment. Georgia is a good team, was up 9 on their home court and had the crowd in a frenzy. Yet, Kentucky fought back at two important moments (down 9 and Andrew scores 7 points in 23 seconds to get UK to 2 and then down 6 with 5:30 left) to get the victory. That is the most hostile environment that Kentucky will face for the rest of the season and they handled the challenge without losing their poise. As Dan Lebatard said on ESPN today, it is fun to watch a great team turn it on when they have to and find another gear. UK did that last night and the result was a great win and having the stage set for one more game to history.
Just so you know, Saturday is going to be a circus at Rupp Arena. Meanwhile at Indiana, they have this:
Sucks to be a Hoosier
Some interesting news from the world of the NCAA as it looks as if they are surveying people in college basketball about potential rule changes. The above survey was sent to KSR friend Matt Norlander (who works for CBS Sports) and he tweeted the survey out, along with his answers. Interesting questions and all areas of change that many fans would like to see. I generally agree with Matt’s answers and hope some of these become reality.
Today is a big day for us around these parts as we finally released the new KSR App for the masses (or at least those with iPhones). It has been a long undertaking that has gone on for the better part of a year, but now that it is done, I am really proud with what we ended up with. It is as visually appealing as any app I have seen and I think it blows every Kentucky-based app out of the water. I hope you will agree and download it to check out the features. We have many more features coming in the next few weeks but we didn’t want to make perfect the enemy of good and so we went ahead and pushed it out. I hope you enjoy it and it changes the way you get your UK information.
Off to a good start on the charts…
— Quick note for the Android users who have been complaining here, there and everywhere about there not being an Android app. We hope to eventually have one, but the path on this is similar to most apps. The reality is that it is easier to get developers to produce iPhone apps because there is more money in them…while there are more Android phones, apps are used more by iPhone users. Plus (and probably most importantly), advertisers pay significantly more to pay for ads on iPhone apps than their Android counterparts. So when a developer comes to someone that runs a website (like say KSR) and says, “we will build you a top-of-the-line professional app for free,” they almost always do so (initially) for the iPhone. It isn’t about leaving anyone out, it is about creating something that makes financial sense. If that iPhone app is successful, an Android version often follows soon after. We hope that will be the case here…this was downloaded 6,000 times in the first 2 hours, so early indications are very positive.
— One more thing on the App, TURN ON THE NOTIFICATIONS so you can get Breaking News…we won’t use them often, but this way you can get breaking UK news as it happens right to your phone. You will thank me later.
— In non-app news, Tom Izzo made some comments about UK and Calipari, but it looks as if they were taken somewhat out of context. Twitter made them seem much more inflammatory than they were and after reading the entire transcript, I think it was much ado about nothing. Kentucky’s success is causing some to want to make wholesale changes to the sport to address the wins of one team…that is shortsighted and dumb. People will realize that after either (a) UK doesn’t win this year or (b) next year’s team takes early bumps. For now though, it doesn’t seem like a Calipari/Izzo feud is developing.
— Doug Gottlieb came on my radio show and made a case for Willie Cauley-Stein as National Player of the Year. I disagree with that case but I don’t think it is ludicrous. Willie is the most important defensive player in the country and may change the game more than any other player. I don’t think he is quite where he needs to be offensively, but I would probably vote him 3rd or 4th on my ballot (behind Okafor, Kaminsky and maybe DeAngelo Russell). Either way, he should be a first team All American, and if he does it raises the question…Mike Pratt is the only UK First Team All American eligible for a jersey retirement that isn’t in the rafters (and he should be). Would a 40-0, First Team All American Willie be deserving? On the surface it might seem no, but looking at history…worth the debate.
— Finally, remember that UK Football Spring Practice begins Saturday. We will have coverage on here of every practice but there is much to watch for as the team takes the field. Most interesting to me, is getting to see the first glance at the players Redshirted last year. I have been told that as many as 8 of them could see major time this year…it will be fascinating to take our first glimpse and see if the decision to engage in mass red-shirting like the big boys do, pays dividends right off the bat.
More tomorrow as Josh Hopkins of “Cougartown” co-hosts KSR with me.
I got a call this afternoon from a reporter for the Wall Street Journal hoping to ask me some questions about a story he is doing on the Cats. This has become a fairly regular thing over the past few weeks as more and more of the national media descend on Lexington try and cover what has become one of the two or three biggest stories in all of sports. Because of my somewhat self-centric view of the world (ex-girlfriends of mine are all currently nodding in agreement), I tend to judge just how much buzz is out there based on how many times such questions are asked of me, and on that scale, we are entering into unprecedented times. While most ask me about the team or the fanbase, this particular reporter had a very specific question. He asked me, “Is this season the most special ever for UK fans and if so, why?” I thought it about for a second and said that this is quite possibly the most special season for UK fans in my lifetime, and the only one that was close was probably the 1992 “Unforgettables” team. He asked why that was the case and I gave the best answer that I could (I was slightly distracted by NASCAR), but when I hung up, I wanted to explore the subject a bit further. After some reflection, I am more confident than I was before. This season is different and for most fans, has a “special” feel that I haven’t sensed at any point in my UK fandom previously. I think there are a number of reasons why:
1. The HISTORICAL GREATNESS
The most important answer is also the most obvious. Fans love this team because it is one of, if not the, best ever in the history of the program. Sometimes it isn’t easy to see and feel greatness while you are going through it. The 2012 Kentucky team will go down as one of the 2-3 best in school history and possibly the best nationwide in the past decade, but during the season it didn’t necessarily always feel like that. The team took some time to get going (because they were so young), lost a heartbreaker to Indiana, had point guard issues (remember the geniuses saying bench Teague and let Doron Lamb play point?) and didn’t feel like a true juggernaut until February. This team has been a freight train from moment one. Since the day the Harrison Twins decided to return, we have all expected greatness and watching that expectation become reality has been amazingly rewarding. How often in life does something highly anticipated actually come to fruition? Rarely in my experiences, but this time it has met, and even exceeded, our high hopes. It isn’t hyperbole to say that this is one of the best overall defenses in college basketball history. Their Kenpom numbers are the best since the statistic was created and the team’s length has caused difficulties in scoring that we simply have not seen before. The wins this team has produced over Kansas, UCLA, Arkansas, etc are blowouts against ranked teams/historic programs of a scale that simply are unheard of. In order for a team to be loved, it must have many positive characteristics beyond the performance on the basketball court. But make no mistake…what is most important is winning and when a team kicks ass on a historic level like this one…well that’s quite a start.
Even Phil Jackson had to see this group in person
2. The Team’s Unbelievable UNSELFISHNESS
I always knew this team would be good, but even I have to admit that I never thought it would do it in this way. When John Calipari created the now-famous “Platoon” system, I was a skeptic…not of the idea, as I thought it was brilliant. But I was skeptical of whether he could stick with it during the difficult times of the season. And while Calipari has definitely deviated from utilizing the platoons rigidly, the general overall theme of it still rings true. This team plays nine guys, close to equal minutes, and does so with no complaints and to the benefit of all involved. When the Harrison Twins and Willie came back, they couldn’t have thought their minutes would go down…but they have and they have accepted it nonetheless. How could Karl Towns have imagined himself anything but a 30 minute-plus player or Trey Lyles a secondary option, or Devin Booker coming off the bench? The answer is they didn’t, yet the players have not accepted the role, they have flourished in it. What has been better than watching these guys cheer on their fellow teammates during big moments from the bench, knowing that their individual accolades are muted because of the system? I never thought there would be a team mutiny this season because of having too much talent, but I also never believed Calipari could juggle this many players with virtually no negative ramifications at any point? Even when the outside clutter has clouded the views of others (like with the Andrew/Ulis debate of early January), Calipari remained focused and what we have now is a team full of talent, that plays together, sacrifices for the team and passes at a level we haven’t seen at this school since 2003 (still the best passing team of my lifetime). It is truly remarkable and part of what makes each game so entertaining.
Eight different players have led the team in scoring
3. The PERSONALITIES
I am a sucker for the big personality. There is a reason I loved Demarcus Cousins and will still go to bat defending him any day…he was full of life and energy and I gravitate towards players of that ilk. This team doesn’t have a lot of huge personalities…Willie Cauley-Stein is probably the closest and he is more eccentric than strong in his personality archetype. But while this team may not be full of guys who could host their own talk show, it might be the highest quality group of young men that Kentucky has seen in my lifetime. Nearly every year, there is always at least one guy that kind of makes your eyes roll and who is at least a bit of a troublemaker. Not in this group. What you see is what you get and what you are seeing is the nicest collection of UK players that I have ever come across. They are uniformly polite, considerate and the type of guys that if they came home to date your daughter, you would be proud of her choices. As Jay Bilas said on College Gameday Saturday, there have been no arrest, suspensions or even fits of bad behavior. In fact, the biggest controversy of the season was when Karl Towns (who is almost too nice to be a real human being) did one chin-up on the rim during a game at LSU. A reporter doing a story recently on Calipari called and asked me, “Matt off the record now…these guys can’t be as nice as they seem. There has to be something I am missing, right?” I told him, the answer is no. They are as likeable as you think they are, and there are no secret dark clouds. This is a team of guys you can root for with no reservations or Bobby Petrino-esque “hold the nose while you win” qualms. They don’t just win, they do it with people you would actually like in real life.
This sign at the game worked. She said yes.
4. Confounding the CRITICS
Let’s face it…Kentucky is the most criticized program and Calipari is the most criticized coach in the country. Part of that is the attention given to Calipari, the most controversial (and best) coach in college basketball today. Because he wins and wins at a huge level, and does so without buying into much of the old-school college mythology (or sucking up to what passes for the college basketball writer “intelligentsia”), he will always be a target for criticism. Put him then at Kentucky, a place that for a myriad of social reasons will never be the favorite of most of the media, and you will have a massive target. However this year, the chattering class of Cal haters has almost nothing they can say. After Pat Forde embarrassed himself with his infamous “Calipari you made your own bed” article last year (seriously read it again a year later…it is hilarious in its awfulness), most held their fire early in the year, waiting to see how this would all work out. Virtually all of them (a) began by criticizing the platoon system, (b) said there was NO WAY the Cats could go 40-0, (c) took shots at Andrew Harrison as a stand-in for Calipari and (d) criticized the SEC for being weak and providing no real test for the Cats, but yet none of these attacks truly hit their target. Why is that? Well Kentucky is too damn good. To say anything except this team is playing at a ridiculous level and doing it with kids that are playing the right way, is even a stretch for Calipari’s most indignant hater. They have to accept what is painfully obvious to everyone…Kentucky is great, with good kids, playing as a cohesive unit and a coach that is at the top of his game. Throw in the players dismissed at Duke/Louisville, the turmoil at Florida, the NCAA problems at Kansas and what do you have…Kentucky on top and oding it the right way. That has to hurt and it makes UK fans even more gleeful in watching the nattering nabobs of negativism squirm.
John Short gets the shirt with the saying he made famous
No fanbase in America cares about college basketball more than Kentucky. The ratings showcase that no matter the game, no matter the team, the state of Kentucky cares more about the sports and watches it more often than any other set of fans in the nation. And that love of all things college basketball extends into its history. Along with Kansas, no place in America cares more about college basketball’s past than Kentucky. No program has been consistently good longer than the Cats and no decade has seen a drop in relevance from the Big Blue. From Rupp to Hall to Pitino to Tubby to Calipari, Kentucky has always been in the college basketball conversation, no matter the players. And thus when we have a team here that is special, that transcends just the normal “great” year into something higher, we not only know about it, we can appreciate it. 29 wins in a row, the best start in the history of the program, means much more to us than just a number. We can remember the teams that didn’t get there, the 54 group that chose not to play in the postseason while undefeated, the 96 group that was clipped by Cal’s UMASS team, the 2010 court storm at South Carolina, the Watford shot in Bloomington and many others. We have seen truly great teams not get to where this one currently stands and that makes us all the more appreciative of what we are witnessing. A school that has seen Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel, can appreciate how Willie Cauley-Stein combines their shot blocking with an unparalleled 7-footer’s ability to guard the perimeter. We know shooting and thus when Devin Booker gets hot, we can be correctly in awe. UK has had its share of large wins, but a 41-7 half against a traditional power like UCLA…well we know that’s special. Its one thing to be a witness to greatness, but it is another to do it at a place where 100 years of basketball at its top level have been played. To go undefeated here, where so many greats have come before them…we know what that means. And to look at this group and watch it take place…how can one not be as excited as at any point in the program’s history?
It seems almost heretical to say…but the interest in Kentucky basketball may be higher now that any point in history. In part because of changes in media coverage and information available due to technology, fans know more about this Kentucky team than possibly any group ever. They obsess over ever game and the tv ratings in Kentucky are higher than they have been in decades. With all of this interest and energy in the fan base, this could end up being the most special season in UK history. While we don’t know the final result, it has been a ride unlike any other, starting in the Bahamas in August heading next to a cold night in Athens this Tuesday. The final ending of this ride is unknown, but the uniqueness of this trip is not. We will never have another year like this one and the UK fan base more than any other, can appreciate just how wonderful it has been.
At the end of tonight’s HUGE win for Matthew Mitchell and his UK Hoops team over #2 ranked South Carolina, Mitchell took a late timeout to take out his Seniors and give them an ovation. It is a common thing to do on Senior Day and should have been cause for no concern. But South Carolina coach Dawn Staley didn’t seem to agree and as you can see here, spent a few seconds with her hands in the air and then yelled “That’s Bullsh**” in the direction of Mitchell. Not her finest moment I would say.
Jay Bilas has been one of the biggest proponents of John Calipari and the UK Wildcats, going all the way back to the Bahamas. I have said for some time that I believe he is the best college basketball analyst in the game and his insights, if taken seriously by those in charge, would make him a perfect College Basketball “Commissioner.” Until then, we can use his insight from College Gameday this week on topics such as Kentucky basketball, which he says should be praised off the court as well as on:
Kentucky doesn’t really fit the stereotype, either. We say “the scourge of the one and dones” and “the one and done is ruining college basketball.” You’ve got all these players going to Kentucky, they have sacrificed their minutes, they have sacrificed scoring, and they are winning. They play together, they play hard and they share the ball. How many guys at Kentucky have been suspended? None. How many have been arrested? None. They are doing it the right way. You don’t like it, that’s your business. But I’ll tell you what, those are really good kids that have done a great job. And if they’d done it somewhere else, everybody would be praising the sacrifice and what great kids and all that stuff.
Hear, Hear!!!! Tell em Jay
The video you see above is Kevin Stallings, telling a player what looks to be “I will f****** kill you” during the post-game handshake line at Tennessee. The player had apparently been taunting the crowd a bit and Stallings did not like it. The phrase certainly makes Calipari’s infamous name calling of Terrence Jones seem minimal and it led to a small outcry. Stallings then responded with this statement:
We always knew Stallings could whine, now we also know he can get quite angry as well.
This video has been brought up to me twice today (via radio and GYERO) so I thought it was a chance to show it again for people who maybe don’t remember. Before the UK vs Vandy game three years ago, I interviewed “Helmet Guy” in a local bar in downtown Nashville about UK’s chances for the rest of the year. He came through with an epic production, the likes of which we may never see again. The original video disappeared from the internet, but the highlights are still around and below, you can see two of the great moments from the production:
You may have heard me on the radio talking about the picture that is in the UK Locker room (right about the 2012 National Championship floor) that includes all the current players in the NBA. Well many of you have asked for it, so there it is in all its glory. Some of these need to be changed (the NBA Trade deadline came in), but for now it is a glorious look at the Cats in the League…with many more to come.
By Matt Jones on ©February 22nd, 2015 @ 10:30pm
Pic by Andy Lyons, Getty Images
Its been a heck of a weekend around these parts. From the snow and ice (is it just me or is this entire state one big puddle?) to the ongoing drama in Louisville (can you imagine a UL Basketball Reality Show?) to the NFL Combine (people in tight, ugly green clothes doing boring things), there has been a lot to talk about for a random February weekend. But who are we kidding? While there are a lot of diversionary topics to discuss, the only thing that really matters right now is the 27-0 UK Basketball team. Saturday was an exquisite example of this team at its best. The Cats got up and down the court, scored at will on a conference opponent and finished with 110 points (the most since 2002), an Arena on its feet and the realization that the team is hitting its stride at the perfect time. While one could nitpick (really only about the second half defense that allowed Auburn to finish with 11 three pointers for the game), honestly to do so would just be selfish. We witnessed a spectacle on Saturday and it has me as confident as ever that the Cats are the best team in the nation by a wide margin.
Being the best team does not guarantee a Tournament title (bad games, randomness and luck ensure that), but it is likely the case that this Kentucky team is as big an overwhelming favorite going into the Tournament as any in recent memory. If Kentucky plays like they did on Saturday, they won’t lose a game and will finish at 40-0. We wondered just a few weeks ago if Kentucky was able to hit its high gear again, but after performances over the last couple of weeks, I feel as good about this team as I have since the beginning of the year. When I look at the rest of the nation, I think the Tournament sets up like this:
IF UK plays at its best: There is no one that can beat the Cats. When at their peak gear (think UCLA, Auburn), they as dominant as any team we have seen since the 96 Cats, primarily because of their overwhelming defense. If the Cats come close to 100% effort defensively and can even be moderately efficient on offense, they win against any opponent in the nation.
If UK Plays Well: If the Cats play well, but not at their peak efficiency (let’s say like they did against North Carolina for instance), then I think there are only two teams that can beat them, Duke and Wisconsin. If Duke is hitting threes and getting out on the break, they can score on a high enough level to get to the 70 point threshold that I think is required to beat Kentucky. Similarly, Wisconsin has the ability to be patient and get good shots, while also having enough of an inside presence that if Kentucky isn’t at 100% energy or focus, an upset can occur.
If Kentucky Plays Mediocre: If the Cats are just ok (like say against Louisville), then another couple of teams become potential upset winners on a neutral court. I would put Arizona, Virginia and Gonzaga in this category as teams that if Kentucky is just having an average day, and they are playing at their peak, can knock off the Cats. Of these three, Gonzaga is the most bizarre because they can guard no one, but have the ability to score in a variety of ways, possibly the most diverse offense in the country. Throw in the Wiltjer factor and it would be an interesting affair.
If Kentucky Plays Badly: If the Cats are simply off their game on both ends (think Texas A&M, Columbia), then there are a number of other teams that can knock them off. Teams with slowdown, physical defenses would worry me the most, and UK is likely to see a game like this in the second round in Louisville. Come out and perform and it will be no problem. But a lack of focus, especially early could lead to an unnecessarily close game.
Not sure what I think of the Karl Towns “Vest only” look
That may seem overly optimistic, but I think it is also accurate. While UK has had tough tests, the close games have all come on the opposing team’s home floor (besides Ole Miss) and the Tournament will see a massive pro-UK crowd, as Cats’ fans flood these “neutral” courts. That however does not mean that UK can’t lose. One of the best things about the NCAA Tournament is the randomness it provides, but it can be especially maddening when you are the best team in the country. UK has gone into the Tournament the overwhelming favorite twice in recent years (1996 and 2012) and won it both times. But in three other instances (2003, 2004 and 2010) UK has been the slight favorite and has not even made the Final Four. And in three other instances (1998, 2011 and 2014), UK was not considered a likely title contender and has either won, or nearly won, it all. Merit is a huge part of winning a national championship, but it isn’t the sole factor. And that is what makes March great, and stressful.
All one can ask for is a chance to cut down the nets. And Saturday’s game proved once again, UK will never have a better chance to win #9 this year. Everything a team could want, this team has. They protect the rim as well as any team in college basketball history, they guard the perimeter much better than expected, they are an exquisite passing team, have good to great shooters, are unselfish at times to a fault and have a mental toughness that continues to amaze. The only worry to me is a lack of an individual star, but as of yet this season, that has not been a hinderance. No matter what happens in March, Calipari and the fans can take solace in this. The team is as well-prepared as possible and really, that is all you can do.
With that said, a couple of quick notes:
It is worth celebrating just how amazing this performance at the Combine was by Bud Dupree today. He measured out as a freak of nature…6’4″, 270 pounds, 4.57 40 yard dash, 11.6 Broad jump (the third highest recorded since 2006). Bud was a freak on the field at Kentucky and his NFL future looks to be even brighter. When Mark Stoops says (as he has) that Dupree is as good as he has ever coached, with the FSU and Miami background, that means something. Congrats to the young man who is a really great kid off the field as well as on.
— I won’t dwell on this on here (we will talk more about it on radio), but if you listen to KSR, the news about Chris Jones being kicked off was not surprising. As I said on the show back in late December, Jones left the UL program after the UK game and quit the team. He was then allowed back on and I said at the time that there was no way he would make it until March. UL folks (and their media liaisons) denied this, but as with Kevin Ware and Chane Behanan, those denials did not change the underlying truth. Last Saturday after the NC State game, I am told he was involved in some way in a fight on 4th Street that was fairly substantial. He was then suspended for the Syracuse game because of the fight and then reinstated. Whether this new expulsion is due to ramifications of that fight (potentially it soon being public or more details coming out) or is because of a new incident, remains to be seen. What is clear is that this was entirely predictable. UL turned their heads many times on this kid and it has ultimately come back to bite them.
— Finally, the Tony Delk retirement ceremony was a great moment in Rupp Arena. The video of Tony’s best moments brought back a lot of memories and the chance to see Tony (who looks like he hasn’t aged a day since he played) was even better. Here is a picture taken by a Rupp Arena Blue Coat (my man Brad) of Calipari at the start of the second half looking up at Delk’s jersey in the rafters with Tony. Very cool picture from a great day.
— Aaron's Right Shoe (@AaronsRightShoe) February 18, 2015
The above video shows something a bit odd. It looks as if in pushing away Tyler Ulis from the ball, a Tennessee player may have punched him in the face. It is unlikely it was intentional (although who really knows), but is it not a bit odd that no foul was even called?
As I sit here on Sunday night and try to wade through the Grammy Awards (they really are terrible), I did want to note the passing of one of the most influential coaches in the history of sports, Dean Smith. If you are listing the best college basketball coaches in the history of the sport, the list will be (in some order), Wooden, K, Rupp, Knight and Dean Smith. In his final season as coach of North Carolina, Smith passed Adolph Rupp for the All-Time wins record and held onto that title until his rival Coach K took it from him a few years ago. His accomplishments on the court are often less about national titles (he won 2, one in 1982 and one in 1993), and more about his unbelievable array of players that he put in the NBA. From Michael Jordan to James Worthy to Sam Perkins to Kenny Smith to Vince Carter, the list of huge NBA talents to pass through Chapel Hill during the Smith years has never been topped (although John Calipari may do it before he is done). He also was a tremendous creator of college coaches, and the spawns from his coaching tree have gone on to take over college programs as successful as Kansas and NBA franchises that have won playoff series. But what makes Smith unique is that in addition to his on-court success, he was a fighter for change off of it. Never content to just “stick to coaching,” Smith was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in North Carolina and his decision to integrate the North Carolina basketball team essentially forced similar integration throughout the ACC. His legacy on such issues continued past his years as a coach and there is a reason those that knew him hold him in such high regard. He passed away Saturday night after a tough battle with dementia and our prayers are with Smith, his family, friends and the North Carolina basketball community.
With that, Five Notes from the Game Last night
1. Last Night was an Important Game for Kentucky
I am really glad that the game in Gainesville played out exactly the way it did. For only the third time time all season, Kentucky was in a game that was in doubt in the last minute…and just as they did last year during the amazing Tournament run and the two other times this season, they handled it immaculately. When Kentucky needed big points, the best free throw shooters put the ball in their hands, created and either got a call or put up a relatively good shot. The defense, while not perfect, hit another gear in the last ten minutes and save for a couple of ill-timed breakdowns, they made it very difficult to score. The most important play of the game saw the three best contributors from the night all make a crucial contribution. Aaron Harrison got open to get a good 12 foot look from the side that missed, but Willie Cauley-Stein got a key rebound, missed the put back, only to have Karl Towns fight and get a second rebound and make two free throws after being fouled. That string put Kentucky up four and one defensive stop later, the game was safely in hand. There will be at least one, and possibly more, games like this in the Tournament and practice for such a scenario continues to be needed. To get such a test on the road, in the most hostile environment in the SEC AND come out with a win…well that is even better.
2. Aaron is Still the Clutch Player
It is easy to forget Aaron Harrison. Devin Booker has been the deadeye shooter for much of the year…Willie got the All American hype…Karl and Trey are considered higher draft picks…the media likes to talk about Andrew vs Tyler…but Aaron Harrison sometimes seems like the forgotten player on this team…that is until crunch time comes. Here is the reality. If the game is on the line and I need one shot, I want Aaron to take it. If Kentucky is up two and has two free throws to put the game away, I want Aaron to take them. If there is a stone cold killer who simply will not let the team die without a fight down to the last second, it is Aaron Harrison. The second half last night was all his. He hit threes, made mid-range jumpers, nailed free throws and was the best perimeter defender of the last 10 minutes. Calipari said before the season that if Aaron wants to, he can be the best player in the country. Well on Saturday night, he wanted to and it was a great performance.
Not sure where this is…but I am impressed
3. The Team Misses Trey Lyles
Trey Lyles has been gone for three games and UK has felt his absence. Trey provides a matchup difficulty for the vast majority of teams that gives Kentucky an offensive option it is currently lacking. Between Lyles and Poythress, Kentucky had two small forwards that were simply impossible for most teams to guard, and more importantly, beasts on the offensive glass. Without that presence, Kentucky has seen its offensive rebounding go down significantly and the matchup advantages wither. He won’t play Tuesday and I am hearing it is 50/50 whether he will play on Saturday. For the first time, Calipari called the issue “strep” and said that he thinks he is better. Regardless of the situation, Kentucky will need Lyles in March and while it has been good to allow others the chance to step up and make contributions, these last three games have shown how valuable Lyles is to the overall success of this team.
4. Karl Towns is hitting his stride
These last three games have been the Karl Towns coming out party. In part due to Lyles being out and UK often playing three guards (requiring all defenders to stretch out on the three point line and giving Towns more room to operate on the block), Towns is now taking over on the inside. His footwork and wide range of moves are now finally paying dividends and over the last three games, he has been the best player on the floor in the first half by a wide margin. In all three games, his second half has been less offensively spectacular (not sure why), but he has been much tougher. In the Florida game, he fought for some key rebounds and even took the ball from another Florida player on the defensive end, reversing the plague of so many of his rebound attempts earlier this year. The Florida game was probably Towns best overall on the offensive end (counting rebounds and passing) of SEC play and we are finally starting to see him hit his stride. If he becomes a consistent 15 point a game scorer, as he has been these last few games, beating this team becomes much tougher.
Boogie gets his All Star Game gear
5. The Dunk
photo by Rob Ford…Getty Images
Everything that can be said about Willie’s dunk has been said. It was probably one of the five best dunks in UK history and considering the moment and time, its status should be elevated. After the dunk, UK never trailed again and there is no doubt that it was a tremendous momentum changer in the second half. But it is also worth noting just how much that dunk moved Willie into the game. He played great in the last ten minutes, hitting the glass, getting rebounds and making free throws. He was beaten a couple of times off the dribble, due in large part to his foot soreness (an issue still to watch in the weeks ahead), but otherwise it was the Willie we know and need for this postseason. There are very few plays that make me get up out of my chair…Willie’s was so good, I got up and hurt my back in the process. We may or may not remember the specifics of this game in years to come but we will remember Willie’s dunk. One of the best I have ever seen and it left me like:
We get back to it on Monday…so we will see you on the radio and this here site bright and early.