Hopefully everyone else is feeling much better on this Sunday morning than you were just a week ago. My how the times have changed, huh? We’ve talked about the game in detail a lot here on KSR, but let’s go over 10 quick leftovers from last night’s game…
1. Kentucky gained much-needed momentum toward the tournament in front of a huge audience
The crowd was big in Rupp Arena last night, but more eyes than those of Big Blue Nation were watching carefully to see how the post-Nerlens Wildcats would fare against a top-50 Missouri team at home on the biggest stage. The Cats passed the test with flying colors. The Cats not only won the game, but they passed the “eye-test” as well. For various spurts during that game last night, Kentucky looked like a team that could catch fire and pose a threat to anyone in their path in the month of March. For a stretch in the beginning of the second half, Kentucky was hitting on all cylinders offensively, and looked as good as they have all season. Kentucky scored 16 points in the first 4:25 of the half to erase Missouri’s lead heading into the first TV timeout. The point is, Kentucky looked good and on a weekend when a few teams on the bubble took major steps back…Kentucky plunged forward. And like I said, everyone was watching.
2. Julius Mays is 1st Team All-Glue, perhaps All-American All-Glue
Kentucky doesn’t win that game last night without Julius Mays. In fact, you could probably say that about a lot of Kentucky’s wins this season. Mays, the eldest statesman on the team, affectionately known as “Uncle Julius,” has quite simply put this team on his back. Mays shined no brighter last night than in the most crucial moments when his team needed him the most. Every time Missouri was about to completely pull the rug out from under Kentucky and steal the momentum, Mays answered with a big play–usually in the form of a 3-pointer. No play was perhaps bigger than when Missouri had just re-taken a 2-point lead. Kentucky came down the court and appeared to be in trouble late in the shot clock. Had Kentucky not come away with points in that moment, Missouri might have been able to turn the tables for good. Instead, Mays did something only a savvy veteran would think to do. Mays stepped into his man and drew a foul on a three point shot. Mays connected on 2 of the 3 free throws to keep Kentucky at serve with the Tigers.
Julius Mays’ post-game comments, and his teammates’ post-game comments only further add to the legend of Uncle Julius, this team’s “glue guy.” After a strong first half performance, point guard Ryan Harrow began to show signs of being fragile again– making a few questionable decisions. Calipari was ready to let his point guard know when Mays stepped in, feeling that it might be better coming from him. Mays was able to reach Harrow and keep him on board to finish the game when it was in the most intense moments. Mays not only spoke like a true leader, but like a leader who knows his teammates– who has a finger on the pulse of what this young team needs…
“We didn’t need to lose Ryan. We needed Ryan. So I stopped Coach and I told him, “I got him.’ So I got on Ryan and he accepted the coaching from me. ” How much do you think Calipari appreciates the presence of a guy like Julius Mays?
Archie Goodwin went on to describe his teammate Julius Mays as not only his brother, but also his best friend.
3. Julius Mays provides the quote of the night
I’m almost ready to stop gushing about Mays, but not quite yet. Julius Mays provided one of the best quotes of the night, maybe even the season. For a guy who will only spend one year of his life at Kentucky (how sad does that make you?), he sure does seem to appreciate the enormity of it all. Whoever says that these guys only show up for one year and never connect to the program– you’re crazy.
“Each game I put that uniform on, I take pride. And I love every minute of it.”- Julius Mays
4. That game was not made for Kyle Wiltjer
Every time Calipari inserted Wiltjer into the line-up in the second half, I winced. Kyle Wiltjer is a great player, and he will win games for Kentucky between now and whenever the season comes to an end. But last night was simply a match-up nightmare for Wiltjer. Wiltjer was hesitant to shoot last night, and that might be partially due to the defense that was being played on him. Against an extremely athletic Missouri team, Wiltjer was a liability on defense and seemed to be in the game each and every time Missouri started to mount a run. Wiltjer only played 18 minutes, tallying 4 points– all on free throws. That game simply wasn’t made for Kyle Wiltjer. And there will be other games that will be the same way. With that said, there’s no cause for panic. There will probably be a game or two where Wiltjer can find a more friendly defensive assignment and potentially go for 20+ points.
5. That game was also not made for Jarrod Polson
In a similar fashion to Wiltjer, Jarrod Polson dealt with many of the same difficulties. Polson has provided huge minutes for this Kentucky team in a number of games this season. And again, much like Wiltjer– he probably will again. The one type of match-up that will not be favorable for Polson contributing much is when Kentucky plays a team with extremely quick guards…aka Missouri. The SEC isn’t filled with a ton of excellent guards, but a few teams will pose a problem for Polson. Polson only played 9 minutes last night and was not a major factor in the stat column.
6. Phil Pressey is excellent
Missouri’s point guard Phil Pressey went for 27 points and 10 assists in last night’s game, and was virtually unstoppable. Kentucky did all they could to try so stay in front of him, but he consistently found his way into the paint, hitting pull-up jumpers as well as dishing to his teammates for easy lay-ups. Phil Pressey is fast. Really fast. Phil Pressey is what you might hope a someday polished Archie Goodwin could be like–using his speed but remaining under control. When Pressey picked up his 3rd foul and had to head to the bench for a stretch of time, Kentucky was able to go on a bit of a run. When Pressey came back into the game, that’s when Missouri really began to make its late game run. Pressey is the kind of player who, if your team didn’t have to play, you’d have fun watching. You might even cheer for him in a meaningless NCAA tournament game between 2 teams other than Kentucky.
For Kentucky’s part, they didn’t back down from Pressey. Even though he was able to have his way offensively, Kentucky’s guard combo of Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow each had big games as well. Goodwin even made a pre-game comment about Harrow being the best point guard in the country when he’s playing well, and Pressey apparently let him hear about it during the game. That ounce of “swagger” (I still hate that word, but it feels right) shown from Goodwin and the pounds of it shown by Ryan Harrow in the first half, were huge for Kentucky and will be down the stretch as well.
7. Kentucky may not match up well, but they can still win…with great offense and a few key stops
Kentucky beat Missouri, but make no mistake– Missouri is not a good match-up for Kentucky. Kentucky struggled to stay in front of Missouri’s guards the entire game, allowing penetration (is there ever really a good time to use that word?) from start to finish. Missouri was also a load for Kentucky on the boards, especially in the first half. To Kentucky’s credit, they actually out-rebounded the Tigers in the second half. Both Missouri and Florida pose perhaps the two worst match-ups for Kentucky, with strong/fast guard play and strength down low. With that said, Kentucky proved last night that they can still beat those types of teams.
How? With great offense. Kentucky was great on offense almost all night, especially during the first part of the 2nd half. Kentucky was efficient, and managed to avoid many huge scoring droughts (other than the one toward the middle/end of the 1st half) like they have during some points during the season. Kentucky may not have been able to consistently stop Missouri, but they kept pace with the Tigers offensively to put up 75 points in regulation. Kentucky was able to come up with a few key stops down the stretch. Will they be able to hold teams to below 70 points night in and night out? Probably not. But if they can match that offensively, and come up with a few key stops like they did last night– Kentucky can beat teams even if they are a bad match-up.
8. Had Julius Mays made that shot at the end of regulation, would it have been the biggest in Rupp Arena history?
Remember, we are talking about Rupp Arena only– not Memorial Coliseum as well. I know it’s very hypothetical, and he probably should have passed the ball to Archie anyway, but if Julius Mays had hit that last second shot, from around midcourt, would it have been the biggest shot in Rupp Arena history for Kentucky? Consider the stakes (Kentucky’s NCAA tournament hopes). Consider the atmosphere (College GameDay, huge/electric crowd). Consider where he was on the court (would have been almost a half-court shot). Help me out here folks…can you remember a bigger one?
9. This team is growing up and it’s showing on the court and off…
You can see the changes on the court. This team is growing up and finding roles, while also playing together. The off the court commentary from the players just sounds different as well. (h/t Scott Anderson)
10. The players both needed and appreciated the environment in Rupp Arena last night…