Well, that’s more like it. Kentucky gave its fans the best kind of Valentine’s Day gift tonight with a thorough 83-58 beatdown of Tennessee. It was never really close; the Cats turned in their best 40 minutes of basketball in a month, dominating the Vols from start to finish. Malik Monk led the way with 20 points and eight (!!) rebounds, followed by Derek Willis with 16 points and De’Aaron Fox with 13.
Between ball movement, three-point shooting, rebounding, and, yes, defense, there’s a lot to be happy about, so let’s break it down.
Malik Monk had eight rebounds
The most shocking stat of the night? Malik Monk — the same player who went two straight games without a board — pulled down a career-high eight rebounds tonight, equalling his total from the past five games combined. For weeks, John Calipari has lamented about his top scorer’s effort on the boards, and tonight, Monk proved that his hops on offense translate to rebounding as well.
“He did good. He did good,” Calipari said, consulting the stat sheet. “He did good. He did good. He played better, he played within himself.”
Four “he did good”s from Calipari?? You did good, Malik.
I want to write that ball movement a love song
The improved rebounding was great, the hustle was spectacular, the defense — which I’ll write about in a second — was like a cool drink on a hot summer day; however, what made me happiest tonight was the ball movement. For the first time in a month, the Cats zipped the ball around the court like a team actually playing with a plan instead of a bunch of individuals hurdling themselves at the basket. One of the most impressive sequences came in the first half, when the Cats played the best kind of hot potato to set up Dominique Hawkins for a three:
This possession was also great:
“It’s what we’ve been working on,” Cal said of the ball movement afterwards. “It’s how we need to play and we were playing that way early. We got away from it, and it makes us look like a different team.”
Yes, it does.
Derek Willis was on fire
At one point in the first half, it seemed like Derek Willis couldn’t miss. The senior finished with 16 points, including four threes, and if you ask Rick Barnes, his play was a big of what went right for the Cats tonight.
“Our key was not to let their four shoot the ball, make no shots,” Barnes said of Willis, who had four points in Kentucky’s loss in Knoxville last month. “But one thing we did, you go back to our game in Knoxville, he and Gabriel were non-factors. We talked about it all week. That’s what we can’t allow happen and we let it happen. Give them credit. I think John has a great pulse on his team. You can tell that he’s tried to get those guys going because it does make them a different team.”
“Derek Willis was ridiculous and he spaced the court,” Cal said. “I thought Derek played really confident today.”
Clearly, Willis heard Cal’s “play with confidence or you’ll sit” ultimatum from yesterday’s press conference. If Kentucky can consistently get production from either Derek or Wenyen at the four, they’ll be fine.
Defense! There was defense!
Kentucky held Tennessee to a season-low 58 points, the Cats’ second straight game holding an opponent to 60 or under. Defense has been an obvious focus of the reboot, and tonight, it showed. Tennessee was only 18-53 for 35% tonight, including a paltry 19% from three. The Vols committed 13 turnovers to only 7 assists, a stat that looks particularly awful when you compare it to the Cats’ 17 assists and 7 turnovers, their best assist-to-turnover ratio in what feels like forever.
“I thought our defense was as good as it’s been since the beginning of the year,” Cal said. “I thought we crowded the lane a little bit, I thought we helped, we rotated. I was really happy about the rebounds.”
As he should be. Kentucky outrebounded Tennessee 43-35 tonight. Bam Adebayo had 12 boards, his first double-digit rebounding effort since the UCLA game back in early December. Shoutout to Dominique Hawkins, who not only had 10 points and four rebounds, but played with enough energy and hustle that Cal played him six minutes longer than Isaiah Briscoe.
De’Aaron Fox might have to keep the man bun
Fox had some in the BBN clutching at their pearls before the game when he came out of the locker room sporting a man bun (or, as we dubbed it on the live blog, a foxtail). Like Willie Cauley-Stein before him, Fox played well enough that not only are people okay with the man bun, they want him to keep it as to not mess with the mojo. After a rough month which included an ankle injury and an illness, Fox finished with 13 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 0 turnovers before fouling out.
“I thought De’Aaron Fox was as good as he’s been in two months,” Calipari said on his radio show.
During his interview with Mike Pratt, Fox said his phone was blowing up with texts from friends telling him to keep his hairstyle, but that his mother wasn’t a big fan. Fox, who clearly has learned something about the BBN, left the final decision to the crowd at Rupp, who cheered for him to keep the foxtail.
Sorry, mamma. Mojo comes first.
So, are we back?
A 25-point win sure feels good, but before you start trolling fans of other teams about the Cats being back, let’s pump the brakes just a bit. As Rick Barnes put it, his team was “gosh awful” tonight, but seeing Kentucky keep their foot on the gas throughout for a solid beatdown was definitely promising.
“It was good,” Cal said of the win. “[Tennessee] did whatever they wanted last time. I think you see us different defensively. I think you see us different in transition defense. I think you see the difference offensively. Some of the rebooting you’re seeing. And that’s part of the what we did.”
Tonight, you saw Kentucky get back to a lot of things they do best. In addition to sharing the ball, the Cats burned the Vols in transition, with 18 fast break points to Tennessee’s zero. Cal attributed a lot of Kentucky’s reboot to sharper focus in practice, with Tony Barbee handling the defense and Kenny Payne the offense. Regardless of the reason, one thing is for certain: for the first time in a month, Kentucky basketball was fun to watch.
“Today was — it’s kind of growing up,” Cal said. “It’s being a man. It’s all the stuff that we got to teach. But this is only the beginning of what we started 10 days ago.”
Keep it up.