(Photo by Britney McIntosh/UK Athletics)
The Cats came out Tuesday night ready to show the world they deserved the No. 1 ranking, and the boys in blue put it to the Georgia Bulldogs. Along with picking up its 20th win, Kentucky also put to rest any bad-luck mojo of playing on the road as the top team that seemed to be building over the last few seasons. We’re 21 games through, which means the season is almost halfway over, if Kentucky does what we all think it can and go all the way to the National Championship game.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been awfully impressed with the way the Cats have played over the last few games against Arkansas, Alabama and on the road at Georgia. It may not have all the flashiness we saw against the early-season cupcakes, and it may not have a flawless boxscore for every player, but this stretch of three games was the most impressive and most inspiring of the season, and here’s why.
Everyone had their moments, both good and bad. But what really stands out to me is even as one player dips below what they’re capable of for a brief time, the rest of his teammates are right there to pick up the slack. Basketball is a team sport, and despite the possible temptation of demanding the spotlight, this Kentucky squad of future NBA players really embraces it. This shows the true potential and almost tangible motives they have. The team doesn’t care about impressing NBA scouts who are in the stands ogling over their potential, and they don’t care if they only score 57 points. It seems to me this team is honestly in it for the long haul; they want a National Championship no matter the cost. I don’t want to discredit any other Kentucky team and infer none other did, but this team just has that fire in them, and it’s still being stoked.
Kentucky handled Arkansas’ speed with ease and broke the press so well the Razorbacks completely abandoned their plan. It was said before the game that if Arkansas had any chance at winning it was matching Kentucky’s intensity stride-for-stride. Well, that didn’t work out. Kentucky beat North Carolina’s speed, Kansas’ speed and Arkansas’ speed. I don’t think there’s a team in the country that will be able to match up with Kentucky’s athleticism. Syracuse and Ohio State are really the only options, but even then Syracuse slows it down with a zone, and Ohio State has been somewhat underwhelming thus far. Regardless, Arkansas proved one way not to beat Kentucky.
Alabama brought the house down low and did more than attempt to bruise Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis. Needless to say, it didn’t work either. Despite one of his quieter days, Davis still was a factor on defense, leading the Alabama players to alter their shots just by his presence. That’s the beauty of Davis; he doesn’t even need to do anything for his effect to be felt. While Davis was contained Jones broke free, becoming the team’s leading scorer with 15. He was aggressive; he rebounded and most importantly scored over physical defenders and pushed back. While the team may have become reliant on Davis posting ridiculous figures they could have easily found a way to lose when he wasn’t scoring. But they didn’t, others found a way to win. So with that, Alabama proved another way not to beat Kentucky.
Georgia tried to zone Kentucky, and that only opened up the three point shot for the whole crew. Darius Miller was unbelievable, Doron Lamb fired it up, and Kyle Wiltjer redeemed himself for his mistakes early in the game. I’ve been saying for weeks that Kentucky needs to shoot more from outside, and Georgia made it happen. Marquis Teague had a field day driving and dishing on the soft Bulldogs defense and his seven assists to zero turnovers proves it. As a pure point guard, Marquis Teague was awesome and did exactly what will take the Cats to the next level. Georgia proved a zone is not how to beat Kentucky.
We learned three valuable lessons in this stretch of games: You can’t beat Kentucky by out running them, out matching them with size, or by slowing them down with a zone. Of course, Kentucky will see better teams this year, but these games will serve as a blueprint going forward and become a learning tool for future opponents. Each player should have learned something too: Marquis Teague can slow down to limit turnovers and increase court awareness to find open teammates. Doron Lamb should remain active without the ball and continue to create for himself. Darius Miller is really finding a hot streak and needs to keep shooting. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist should realize he doesn’t need to take on so much pressure and become frustrated; there are four other guys on the floor with that same “will to win” attitude. Terrence Jones is becoming a garbage man (and that’s a compliment) — not doing things in the prettiest ways but getting it done nonetheless. Anthony Davis may be factored out with double or triple teams, but he’s got a basketball mind and can still put himself in the right place at the right time. And Kyle Wiltjer, well, he’s still a work-in-progress, but that boy sure can shoot!
Even though the stats may suggest a tune-up game in late November was the “best,” this three game stretch of Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia proved more to me than any amount of points, rebounds or assists these guys get. When you have a team of leaders, and any one person willing to step up in any given situation, it breeds competition and promotes a healthy model for player development. That’s what this Kentucky team is all about. You don’t need experience, a detailed playbook, or even us rabid fans. Because these Kentucky players have shown they have the heart like so many teams before them, they have continuing progress to back it up, and most importantly, that burning desire to just flat-out win. That’s all we do.