Photo by AP
For the second consecutive game, the Kentucky Wildcats found themselves in a battle with an overmatched SEC bottom-feeder and had to turn it on in the second half to escape with a win. But that’s all that really matters, I suppose. Auburn lost their Super Bowl and Kentucky heads to Knoxville for their first chance to smack around Cuonzo Martin. A few notes…
(1) It was a classic “closer than the score indicates” game and there’s no shortage of things to pick at and criticize, but the Cats deserve a little credit for doing what everyone has been asking for over the last few weeks, even if it came later than we would have hoped. After spending thirty minutes struggling with the Auburn zone and failing to find the extra gear, the Cats put the pedal to the floor and laid tire on the Tigers in the final fourth of the game. UK allowed only six points in the final eleven minutes of the game and turned a two-point deficit into a sixteen-point win. After Rob Chubb (more on him later) hit two free throws and nudged Auburn to a 47-45 lead, the Cats clamped down and allowed a layup, a jumper and two free throws the rest of the game. Even better, there were a handful of guys making big plays. Clarence Jones sparked the rally by taking a charge and then Marquis Teague fought for an offensive rebound in traffic and got the putback on the next possession. Then, Doron Lamb hit a three, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist made an incredible block, Darius Miller hit a three and Kidd-Gilchrist attacked the basket to draw a foul.
There’s been a lot of concern about whether this team has the right makeup to play the role of stone-cold killer when it’s needed and they not only showed it tonight, they showed it for an extended period of time. I think they showed that characteristic against North Carolina and even against Indiana to a certain degree, but there was something strangely beautiful about how the Cats clamped down in an ugly, physical game. Now we just need to work on not letting it get to that point with teams like Auburn…
(2) Speaking of the crowd…was the game sold out? I don’t know. Ask Jerry Tipton.
(3) And not letting it get to that point starts with responding to physical teams in a fierce environment. Auburn isn’t exactly Cameron Indoor, but this didn’t appear to be your typical Auburn crowd. There was the usual feel of every game Kentucky plays against the former SEC West schools. It was dark and had that Euroleague vibe. It was even a little smoky. But the crowd actually showed up and was involved and Auburn coach Tony Barbee even played his own hype man by urging the crowd to get rowdy. So maybe Cal was right. There are no easy conference games on the road, especially when you have a young team. But, all things considered, the Cats shook off the early punches and finally hit their stride in a convincing fashion. The road games will only get tougher and the book on Kentucky still appears to be just as it was after the Old Dominion game. Get after them and challenge them to out-fight you for the win. Barbee acknowledged as much after the game, saying his team out-muscled the Cats for the first three-fourths of the game. For all the talent they have, the Cats aren’t a team that’s going to be physically imposing in most games. So, it has to be a mentality. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has it. Someone or several someones need to also find that mentality. You can point to a variety of reasons why the Cats didn’t seem to be comfortable in getting nasty with the Tigers until late, but having Kidd-Gilchrist on the bench with two fouls in the first half is probably a very, very big one. When Marquis Teague was involved in a little pushing and shoving, MKG was the only person to rush over and get in the mix. I’m not advocating punches being thrown or retaliating, but I wouldn’t be offended if there were one or two other guys willing to get in the middle and pull their teammate away or share some polite words of intimidation. The road from here will only get more physical.
(4) For the first time this season, the Cats started Davis, Jones, Miller, Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague, leaving sophomore Doron Lamb as the first guy off the bench. There wasn’t a specific reason cited for Lamb not getting the starting nod, but he responded by leading the team with 14 points. Is this going to continue? Your guess is as good as mine. But, as I said about a million times before the season, this is the lineup I like the most. I believe there are a couple of things you look for in your sixth man, the two most prominent being a spark and the ability to be versatile with your lineup when it’s time to make the first sub. Having Lamb come off the bench – a role he excelled in last season – gives the Cats a serious scoring threat and the ability to sub him in either at the point for Teague or for either Kidd-Gilchrist or Miller. Plus, I think the starting lineup Kentucky employed tonight gives four fairly interchangeable parts around Teague, which allows for defensive flexibility, and length at every spot except the point. But, again, will it continue? That probably depends on who is playing defense in practice this week.
(5) The more close games Kentucky plays, the more Darius Miller emerges as the big-play veteran presence they so desperately need him to be. Miller hit a difficult three-pointer at the buzzer before halftime and essentially stuck the dagger in the Tigers with another trey late in the game, giving UK an eight-point lead with 3:30 left. Miller has been in a weird spot his entire career, never being the star of the team and playing a different role each season. As a freshman, he finished the season essentially as the team’s point guard, taking over the ball-handling from Michael Porter at the end of the year and serving as the team’s (distant) third scoring option. Then it was a year of trying to find his niche with Calipari’s first team and a season last year where he emerged as a reliable late-game presence during UK’s Final Four run. This season, he’s again in a strange role of a talented veteran filling a role and he’s filling it well. When Kentucky needs a big play, Darius has been the one to step up. He’s not the most vocal player on the court, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a leader. When his teammates need him, he’s there. It’s not only a drastic change from the days of “Disappearius”, it’s one of the best compliments a player can receive.
(6) There are a lot of reasons why we’ve all fallen in love with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but one of my favorites sums up his game tonight. We never say “Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t have a great game.” When he’s a little off, we say, “Kidd-Gilchrist didn’t have a great game, BUT….” And tonight, there was a lot to list after that “but”. MKG only shot two-of-ten, only grabbed three rebounds, committed four turnovers and picked up fouls early. BUT…his motor kept running and it paid off for the Cats late in the game. Kidd-Gilchrist had a big block on a layup that he had no business getting to, kept attacking the rim to pick up fouls, which helped take the crowd out of the game, and then had a huge sequence in the final two minutes. The freshman forward ripped the ball away from Rob Chubb, essentially ending any faint hope the Tigers had of coming back and then recovered for Marquis Teague, who had fallen on the ground and initiated the sequence that led to Doron Lamb lobbing an oop to Anthony Davis for the final exclamation points. Just as great teams find ways to win games when they’re struggling, great players find ways to make plays when they’re struggling. Just another note on a long list of reasons GMs will be fighting for him in June.
(7) Again, the Cats struggled on the glass, getting out-rebounded by a team ranked 175th nationally. And, again, a lot of it was because when you live by the blocked shot, you sometimes die by the blocked shot. Kentucky is blessed with plenty of shot-blockers, but when they leave their man to try to toss one into the crowd, they’re opening themeselves up for an offensive rebound. Auburn took advantage of that in the first half and only a few times in the second half, two of them resulting in thunderous dunks. Is there a way to improve rotations and find a way to put bodies on guys? Sure. But this team is imposing defensively because they can block and alter shots and they’ll have to just have to live with a few offensive rebounds against (s)crappy teams like Auburn.
(8) The up-and-down experience that is watching Marquis Teague continued. The freshman point guard hit a couple of threes early, giving him a game with multiple treys for the first time since Penn State. But he shot four-of-eleven and registered the same number of turnovers as assists (three). But what Teague will be remembered for in this game is the little ball tag he gave to an Auburn jumpshooter and was handed a flagrant after the refs went to the tape following the next possession. It was an odd call and one that several people on Twitter thought was worthy of a suspension or an ejection. But I consider myself somewhat of an expert on the subject, having watched Chris Paul punch Julius Hodge in the junk just over one million times on YouTube, and I think we’re exaggerating things a bit. Marquis Teague has trouble finding guys that are 6’11” with a 7’4″ wingspan and you want to tell me he can pinpoint moving genitalia and get a poke in? C’mon man!
(9) You think the Cats are going to be working on the zone offense some? Kentucky was able to get some good looks and penetrated the Tiger defense several times, but they seem to be compeletely forgettin at times that they have giant human beings flashing to the high post. Give the ball to Clarence Jones and let him dump it down to Anthony Davis on a lob. It’s pretty much unguardable. And if you need to, bring out the big guns. Let Perry Stevenson come in and work with Clarence on that. No one threw the high-low pass with as much beauty as Perry.
(10) For Auburn, Chubb was huge. Chubb looked uncomfortable with the tip and Chubb was a little stiff, but Chubb kept banging. Everytime a shot went up, Chubb was in there poking around. Chubb spent most of the night inside, but I think Chubb dribbled once or twice. When the middle was open, Chubb did a good job of plugging it up. Chubb was so big tonight, you could argue that Chubb single-handedly killed the spread. But Chubb seemed to panic when he saw a double-team and after a furious twenty minutes, Chubb seemed to go limp.
(11) After the game, Chubb said, “We were in them. We were on them.” Then he addressed the second half struggles by saying, “We came out flaccid.” Yes, these are actual quotes.
(12) We still miss you, Scotty Pohlmann.
(13) The game didn’t end up being close at the end, but Kentucky made 15 of 18 free throws. It’s the stat you don’t notice until they’re missing, but the Cats are knocking them down consistently so far this year. So there’s pretty much nothing anyone can criticize Cal about now. Ever. In any way.
(14) Finally, the Auburn crowd was singing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” when Doron Lamb was at the free throw line. It was the lowest point in recorded history for both trash-talking and creativity. If you were involved in the singing of this lullaby, just know that your mother is disappointed in you. Your girlfriend is already poking people on Facebook. Your dog is kicking himself. And I don’t want to point fingers, but this “rabid” Dave Grohl look-a-like was most certainly involved. Good publicity for his cover band, the Frat Fighters though.
See you in Knoxville….