John Calipari’s time at Kentucky will be defined by the “one and done” phenoms who gave Lexington one year of elite talent before moving on to the NBA. The supply of elite incoming talent has been constant. What separates Cal’s most successful teams from the rest is the under-appreciated, role-playing veteran.
John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins got rebounding and spacing from Patrick Patterson. The National Championship team got three-point shooting and reliability in the middle of the floor from Darius Miller. The 38-1 team could use simple defensive principles because Willie Cauley-Stein was a consensus All-American.
Saturday in Athens, Kentucky’s three seniors proved they can do what is necessary to take this Calipari team to the elite level. Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder combined to shoot 64 percent from the field (9/14) and 55 percent from behind the three-point line (5/9) for 25 points. Willis’ game might have been the best, tying a career high with 12 rebounds, but he didn’t see it that way.
“I didn’t think I had a really good game, honestly.” Willis was disappointed in his defense, especially against the pick-and-roll, after the game in Athens. “That was definitely getting under my skin. I just tried to do something else and rebounds was the thing I came up with. A couple offensive rebounds at the end and tried to do something.”
On the contrary, John Calipari believed Mulder played his best basketball.
“Mychal’s playing as well as he’s ever played in a Kentucky uniform right now,” Caliper said on Saturday.
Mulder attributes his improved play to increased confidence. “It’s just having the coaches have trust in me and performing every day on the practice floor. We’ve had a really good few weeks of practice and I feel like that’s where everybody builds their own individual confidence.”
Hawkins knows exactly how Mulder is feeling.
“I would say it (his confidence) is probably the highest it’s ever been since I’ve been in a Kentucky jersey.” Hawkins shared today. “I feel real comfortable on both ends, offensively and defensively. I feel like the ball’s going in for me now.”
It couldn’t come at a better time. The Cats can’t rely on Fox and Monk to be consistent. Together, Mulder and Hawkins bond that bridge (so to speak). Wenyen Gabriel is even more unpredictable, while Bam Adebayo will always struggle with foul trouble. Derek Willis proved he can fill that void. This combination is coming together at the right time.
“We understand that our college career is winding down. We’re really just working against the clock and trying to keep our team alive as long as possible on our run in March,” Mulder said today.
The ticking clock is what motivates Mulder to finish strong.
“It really motivates me. You reflect on the years past and all the experiences you’ve had as a basketball player. Just being able to stay in the moment and understand what’s coming ahead of you still, what you still have left to accomplish while you’re still here, that’s something that’s been really important to me. I want to keep striving for those goals and make sure I can accomplish as much as I can while I’m here.”
If the seniors continue to play at a high level in their respective roles, they can take Kentucky to the extraordinary level fans have become accustomed to seeing from John Calipari’s teams.