Every year I always enjoy the Daytona 500 for its “Great American Race” quality that produces continual ridiculousness. From “Happy Birthday Trevor Bayne” to Sterling Marlin getting out of his car to the track catching on fire, to this year’s 50 Cent attempted kiss of Erin Andrews, something bizarre seems to always happen. Unfortunately though, this year’s edition was somewhat mediocre. Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500, but unfortunately may be the most boring human on Earth (I included a picture of his wife just to keep you folks interested). Like Jeff Gordon before him, he is methodical in his dominance, but unlike Gordon, he isn’t really hateable enough to boo. The biggest story in this year’s race was Danica Patrick, who started on the poll and actually acquitted herself very well during the race. She was in the Top 10 most of the day, sat in third going into the last lap and ended up finishing a more than respectable eighth. I am not sure if that success will follow her at non-restrictor plate tracks, but it did give the sport a great deal of interest today as we all were able to see her “I am woman hear me roar” side spring forward. While the race wasn’t the most exciting of all time (they are having a hard time passing with the new car), it did serve most of my requirements, I got to hear DW say “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity”, had a nice mid-race nap and the finish at least was moderately exciting. Another successful Sunday February afternoon.
Now onto the week’s excitement in Rupp Arena. But before we do, here is a pic of Anthony Davis dunking and Demarcus Cousins on the ground. I don’t like Cat on Cat crime
Cats Get Biggest Win of the Season:
Rupp Arena was at its absolute best on Saturday night. In part because of the unique setup, a 10 am start to Gameday that then allowed many fans the chance to spend the day getting themselves in “game shape, and in part due to the huge stakes of the game, NCAA Tournament life, Rupp rocked from start to finish. Calipari afterwards called it the best crowd since he has been at UK, and I would have to agree. From moment one, the fans came to play and soon after the opening ten minutes, the Cats joined them. The last 7 minutes of the first half and the entirety of the second half/overtime, represented the best effort Kentucky has given this season. They attacked on every possession, found a way to win 50/50 balls, ended up outrebounding the best rebounding team in America and hit key shots at crucial minutes to pick up a win that hey simply couldn’t do without (and dont let anyone tell you otherwise). Even before they won the game, I was proud of this Kentucky team. I loved the way they fought and the way that they left everything on the court. Missouri was a bad matchup for the Cats. The Tigers’ two biggest strengths were actually UK’s biggest difficulties, great perimeter quickness and bulk under the goal. But even though UK couldn’t stop penetration and at times got out-muscled, they persevered and got a win that will be huge on Selection Sunday. Everyone played a part, and below are some thoughts on the five players who played the most minutes (along with pictures in between of the various scenes of a great UK crowd with Gameday on hand):
When Julius Mays came to Kentucky, I think most everyone (likely including the coaches) saw his role as that of a sixth man who comes into the game to hit some threes and provide offense for about 20 minutes a night. Double the production level and minutes, and you have what Mays has been for UK in SEC play. Julius was absolutely unbelievable on Saturday, especially in the second half, when he had 21 of his 24 points and made the crucial plays down the stretch to get the win. Uncle Julius has shown to have ice water his veins, hitting key three pointers, breaking down the defense on penetration (even though he may be the slowest player on the court), making the right passes and nailing crucial free throws to get a win. As the game’s final seconds ticked off, the sight of of Uncle Julius limping with cramps seemed appropriate. No player had given more to get the victory and none seemed more deserving of a rest. Mays gets every ounce out of his body and since the Noel injury, his role as team leader has become more and more clear. There is literally no one on the team I have more confidence in during late game situations than Uncle Julius and the Wright State transfer has become, like Jorts two years ago, a delightful underdog surprise story.
The Rupp fatheads were huge successes, including Drew Franklin’s photoshop inspired work of Dodgeball Robic. Here, his three daughters celebrate their dad next to the court
Simply put, this was the best game Alex Poythress has had all season. The most obvious reason was the way he attacked the basket and scored in the second half. For long periods of time, he looked like the dominant force that we have all wanted to see, posting up his man, using his quickness around bulkier defenders and finishing at the rim. And while his offense was impressive, I was more proud of how he played on the defensive end and at the glass. Missouri came into the game with a clear game plan…use its excessive strength to muscle the UK players and dominate physically. Helped by referees taking a “let them play” mentality (which actually worked to help game flow instead of hurting as it often does), Missouri dominated on the glass early and made UK look like the weaker team. But led by Poythress, the physical play from UK increased in the second half and Alex began to man up on the blocks and impose his will. He guarded Ross, Oriakhi and others, ceding no ground and finally playing to his strong body type. It was quite impressive to watch and an example of why he is still projected as a lottery pick. The Alex Poythress that showed up in Rupp Saturday night is a force who, if he returns, can be one of the best players in college basketball next season.
Even with all the ESPN personalities in attendance, the person that was the hottest figure amongst the fans was Samantha Steele Ponder. She couldn’t walk a step without posing for a picture, as everyone met their new favorite sideline reporter. Samantha is a nice person who I got to know a bit when she did sidelines for a UK football game. Now she is clearly a star.
This was a great Archie Goodwin game. Attacking at the right moments, Goodwin also showed what the NBA scouts see in him, a great penetrator with a killer first step and an ability to finish at the rim. By picking his spots and attacking at the right times, Goodwin was a dangerous weapon in the second half. Most of the crucial three pointers made by Mays (and it is worth noting that Archie made two himself) came about in part because of the space Julius had due to Goodwin’s penetration. He got easy baskets at key points and had fewer decisions that made you scratch your head. Early in the game, after Goodwin attacked the rim and lost the ball on a fast break, Mays screamed at him, “ARCHIE PASS THE BALL!” Goodwin looked at the player he calls his “best friend” on the team, and said, “you are right, my bad.” From that point on, he was excellent as he completed possibly his best overall game in SEC play.
A big shout out from me to Ryan Harrow. After the Florida and Tennessee games, my assumption was that Harrow’s career at UK could be coming to an end. However he has bounced back in an unbelievable fashion and showcased why he his talent intrigued Calipari in the first instance. During the first half, Kentucky was struggling to score and Harrow kept the young Cats in the game. He attacked the rim, finished on nearly every occasion and was the one consistent offensive force while the rest of the team struggled to make shots. He had problems defending throughout the game, but he did work through it and had a number of deflections that led to either steals, or stopped scoring attempts. His last two games have been as good as the previous two were bad, and he looks to have calmed his nerves, possibly for good. This team will only go as far as his point guard play takes them, and the signs are finally trending upward.
Finally, it was a very solid performance from Big Willie Style, who after a rough start with the physical play, came into his own down the stretch and battled. He had seven blocks, and by my count on 4 of those, without his block it would have been a sure basket. He hit the glass and made a couple of key layups in the game’s closing minutes. Cauley-Stein needs to work on his hands (a couple of late turnovers could have been killer) and free throw shooting, but the energy he gives, added with his tremendous length, makes him a great presence down low. He has gone from a 15 minute a game player to a crucial factor, and his ability to stay out of foul trouble and disrupt the basket was integral to the team’s victory. HE continues to improve and you can see the NBA scouts collectively drooling.
All in all, a great weekend to be a Wildcat. The campus was hopping, Rupp Arena was at its best and the Cats are back on the right side of the Tournament ledger…for now. Four more games, and if the Cats can go 3-1, they are in. 2-2 and they will need a solid SEC Tournament performance, but should be ok. Now the path looks doable, and Saturday night was a key step.
In other news, we restarted the WALK ONS PODCAST with myself, Ben Swain and Mark Ennis (Mengus22 for you Twitter folks). You can resubscribe here. We have good stuff this week and it is worth joining us if you shall. KSR gets the week going with our regular radio show again in the morning…see you then.