Three minutes in, it looked like another one of those nights. Kentucky was down 11-0 in a deafening Bud Walton Arena with Arkansas showing no signs of slowing down. Then, something funny happened. Instead of shrinking into the shadows as they have several times this season, the Cats fought back, going toe-to-toe with the Razorbacks to turn a horrible start into an 87-72 win. More importantly, for the first time this season, they seemed to find their identity, giving a weary fanbase a much-needed dose of hope heading into the final stretch of the season.
Here’s what I liked from my team, because for the first time in a long time, there was a lot to like.
We found the lineup
After much experimentation, it’s clear that Kentucky’s best lineup is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Quade Green, Kevin Knox, PJ Washington, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Funny enough, three of those guys didn’t start. Calipari went away from the rotations last week in hopes it would inspire his players to fight for minutes; it worked. Quade, PJ, and Jarred came off the bench to put up 36 of Kentucky’s 38 bench points. With Wenyen rotating in as the sixth man, Kentucky was the best version of itself, which is why it’s a little perplexing to this blogger that Calipari doesn’t just go ahead and start them.
What about Hami? He struggled again, putting up only two points and one rebound in ten minutes. His plus/minus was the lowest on the team, at -9. Still, Calipari insists this team will need him down the stretch.
“Here’s what I told Hami, just so everybody knows,” Cal said afterwards on the postgame show. “I said, Hami, we need you to do what I want this team to do. I’m not — you’ve understand, I’ve got to win the game. If someone’s playing better than you, I’m leaving them in. If you look a little confused, I’m taking you out. but you have to keep working to play great. And it may take another week or two. We need you to do this.”
The second half was the best we’ve seen since West Virginia
Kentucky’s regression a few weeks ago was troubling to say the least, which is why it was so refreshing to see them play coherent basketball in the second half. The fundamentals that have perplexed this squad so often this year were their biggest strengths in the second half. The ball movement was better (thanks, Jarred Vanderbilt!), the defense around the basket was better, guys weren’t afraid to fire away from the outside, and the Cats dominated the boards 46-29. As Cal would say, what?? There’s no denying that tonight was the best Kentucky’s played since coming back vs. West Virginia — or maybe all season — a testament to their newfound crisp, confident attitude.
Kevin Knox was more consistent
Kevin Knox has a bad habit of disappearing in games, but tonight, he contributed 11 points in the first half and 12 points in the second. A 30-second span in the second half shows you just how important Knox is to this team. With twelve minutes to go, he hit a jumper to tie the game, grabbed a huge rebound off an Arkansas miss, and laid it up to give Kentucky the lead for good. We’ve said it all season, but for Kentucky to be its best, Knox must score consistently.
PJ Washington earned his flexes
With Nick Richards struggling to contain Daniel Gafford down low, Kentucky needed someone to step up and be physical in the post. PJ Washington answered the call. Calipari has begged PJ to take leadership of this team throughout the season to no avail, but the freshman was Kentucky’s most efficient player tonight, registering a +24 in plus/minus. He had 13 points (6-10) and 10 rebounds off the bench, along with 3 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals. For Kentucky to keep building momentum, PJ cannot revert. Not even an inch.
That flex to give Kentucky the lead late in the first half said it all:
Jarred Vanderbilt’s becoming a game changer
A month after his debut, Jarred Vanderbilt has knocked off the rust to become the dynamic playmaker Kentucky needs, but not in the way you’d expect. Vanderbilt gives the Cats two things they desperately need: good passing and rebounding. Watching him run the floor and look ahead to deliver the ball to the open man is a thing of beauty. He finished with 11 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal in 19 minutes. To whatever extent Vanderbilt disrupted Kentucky’s flow a month ago, the team is better off with him now that he’s settled into his groove.
Does this win mean Kentucky is over its growing pains? Certainly not. I fully expect more face plants before all is said and done; however, it is a big step in the right direction. Kentucky now has a path to the double bye in the SEC Tournament, which is more important than ever. After the game, Calipari said the four-game losing streak was the best thing to happen to this group because it made them confront their issues and band together. Nothing is better for a young team than a little momentum, and after back-to-back wins, Kentucky finally has some; how will they carry it over to Saturday’s rematch with Missouri in Rupp Arena?
Time will tell, but man, I feel better about it after that win. Phew, what a day.