Kentucky’s loss to UCLA back on December 3 was a much-needed wakeup call. The Cats had just blown out Arizona State in the Bahamas, a performance so impressive that Dan Dakich called it one of the best he’s witnessed in his entire broadcasting career. People were even bringing up the possibility of 40-0. But, UCLA came in and, for the second straight season, exposed Kentucky’s biggest flaws. At the time, Kentucky didn’t play defense, particularly the guards. There was no consistent production at the four spot. There was no discipline. The Cats were cruising by on sheer talent and the ability to run past people, and when faced with a team that was also talented and could also run, they balked. The final score was 97-92, but in reality, it wasn’t really that close.
Fast forward three and a half months and here we are, headed for a rematch in the Sweet 16. Oddly, I feel much better about Kentucky’s chances in this game than I did on Sunday vs. Wichita State. In fact, the more I look at this matchup, the more confident I get. Here’s why.
1. Kentucky plays defense now
Not only did Kentucky let UCLA score 97 points back in December, they let the Bruins beat them in every facet of the game, shooting 53% from the floor, 43.5% from behind the three-point line, and winning the rebounding battle 41-38. Clearly, Kentucky had the offense to compete with UCLA, but they couldn’t get enough defensive stops to take control of the game. We’ve ranted about this team’s defense all season, but here in the past month or so, it’s become one of their biggest strengths. The Cats held Northern Kentucky and Wichita State to 35.6% from the floor and averaged nine blocks and 35 defensive rebounds per game. That, from the same team that essentially let UCLA do whatever they please.
2. Malik Monk plays defense now
Malik Monk’s shot has failed him thus far in the postseason, but he’s channeling his frustrations and energy into the defensive end. Monk, notorious for his poor defense earlier this year, looks like a different player on that side of the ball now; the best example of that is his huge block with 13 seconds left vs. Wichita State that helped the Cats hang on for the win. Kentucky (and Monk) still get burned on straight line drives from time to time, but it’s really encouraging to see the improved hustle, energy, and — dare I say it — pride on the defensive end.
3. Monk is also due
Kentucky’s ability to win games without Malik scoring probably comes to an end this weekend. Bothered by a lower back bruise due to a hard fall vs. Arkansas, Monk has struggled to get his shot to fall all postseason, averaging 31.2% from the floor and only 20% from three-point land. Even though Monk warmed up a little towards the end of the Wichita State, there’s no denying how tentative and gun shy he looked at the start, which is so out of character for a player like him. Will almost a week’s rest get Monk back on track? You better hope so.
4. Derek Willis is a different player
The mismatch that burned Kentucky the most in December was TJ Leaf vs. Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis. As Calipari said afterwards, Leaf dominated the game, putting up 17 points off 7-12 shooting, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists. Neither Wenyen nor Derek could contain Leaf, nor did they contribute much on the offensive end, combining for a paltry 13 points.
“I mean, what Leaf did, he basically dominated the game,” Cal said. “We had no one, unless I was going to go big lineup, which we haven’t done a whole lot, which shows me maybe we have to be prepared for that. But he killed us. Straight line drives, rebounds, making shots. We left him a couple times. He played.”
Leaf is still a great player, that hasn’t changed; but, what has changed is Derek Willis. Willis has become a rebounding machine, averaging 7.5 boards over his last eight games. You could always rely on Derek for a big three, but now that he’s attacking the boards and playing defense, Kentucky will rely on him to shut down TJ Leaf.
5. Dominique Hawkins is an integral part of the team now
One of the biggest changes since the UCLA game has been the rotation. Not only has Derek Willis replaced Wenyen Gabriel in the starting lineup, Dominique Hawkins has cemented his place as the team’s sixth man. Dom played 16 minutes vs. UCLA in December, finishing with only five points and one rebound. In the past eight games, he’s averaging 24.8 minutes, and although he may not fill up the stat sheet, his presence is undeniable, particularly on defense. It’ll be interesting to see whom Calipari tasks Dom with guarding on Friday night.
6. Kentucky’s more disciplined
As Calipari has noted time and time again, freshmen are freshmen…until they grow up. Kentucky’s grown up a lot in the past month. They’ve learned to win closes games by being patient and not panicking in the stretch. And, as Malik Monk told reporters on Sunday, the backcourt in particular has matured.
7. Bam is better
Bam actually had a double double vs. UCLA with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but ten of those points came at the free throw line. All in all, Bam was 4-12 from the floor for 33% vs. the Bruins; in the past eight games, he’s averaging 63.5% from the floor, a much-improved clip. Bam will face a tough challenge in Thomas “Feathers” Welsh and Ike Anigbogu, but as his mama said Sunday night, Bam’s going to go at them. (Confession: I may have made this point simply so we can watch the clip of Bam’s mom again.)
Bam Adebayo’s mother, Marilyn Blount, after UK’s victory over Wichita State. “He didn’t shut (Bam) down, did he?! Bam went at him!” pic.twitter.com/uRkR8B1vhD
– Tanner Hesterberg (@TannerWKYT) March 19, 2017
8. LaVar Ball won’t shut up
In case you missed it earlier, LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s dad, kept running his mouth when it comes to Friday’s matchup, telling a Los Angeles morning show that Kentucky won’t be able to beat his son’s Bruins by running.
“Don’t try to beat them at running. You can’t outrun my boy. Don’t play that game,” Ball said. “UCLA has too many shooters. You give my boy all them shooters, you out of luck.”
Keep talking, LaVar.
As we’ve gone over, Kentucky’s made a ton of improvements since December: defense, discipline, Derek Willis. But, the one reason I’ve more confident about this game than any other UK’s played in the postseason? The revenge factor. Thank goodness Wichita State was stupid enough to talk smack on Saturday because otherwise, I’m not sure the players would have “gotten up” enough to beat the Shockers. Motivation won’t be a problem vs. the Bruins. Not only is UCLA a prominent program whose star player’s dad won’t stop making headlines, they beat Kentucky in Rupp this year; for a group of young, talented kids, that’s the number one reason to come out of the locker room looking for blood.