John Clay: Kentucky seems to be peaking at just the right time

But young team seems to be ready

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 1, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

You could make a case that this Kentucky basketball team has benefited from the soft spots in the first half of its SEC schedule. It's played cellar-dwellers Georgia and South Carolina. It's played LSU and Auburn. It's now played Tennessee twice.

What it hasn't done yet is play a team with a winning conference record.

In fact, after its return match with South Carolina in Columbia this Saturday, six of the Cats' last seven regular-season games will be against the teams tied for second and fourth in the league.

There are home-and-homes with Florida and Vanderbilt (each 5-1 in the league), a home game with Ole Miss (4-3), a road game at Mississippi State (4-3). For this Kentucky team, the toughest stretch of road lies ahead.

But that's OK, because this Kentucky team has grown tougher, too. And better. Much better. Just in the past couple of weeks.

The John Calipari team forced to squeeze out a three-point win in Knoxville on Jan. 14, made quick work of Cuonzo Martin's Vols on Tuesday in Rupp Arena, winning 69-44.

In Thompson-Boling, Kentucky trailed Tennessee 34-28 at the half. In Rupp, Kentucky hit its first 11 shots and led the Vols 22-5.

"They're all getting better," said Calipari.

No, the Cats are all getting a whole lot better.

Anthony Davis, he of the 18 points, eight rebounds and seven blocked shots, is starting to hit face-up shots from the perimeter.

Terrence Jones, he of the 27-point game Saturday, is starting to play like the Terrence Jones of old before he suffered the injured fingers.

Darius Miller has been shooting the ball so well you were amazed Tuesday when not one of his four three-pointers managed to go down. Doron Lamb is playing better defense.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is, well, just Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, driving, dunking, defending like there's no tomorrow.

"He's just playing," said Calipari.

And the key?

"Marquis Teague," said Calipari. "The guy that has the ball, if he's playing well, you've got a chance. If he's not playing well, you have no chance.

"Now he could play well and you lose because everybody else is playing bad; they could all be playing well, but if he's playing poorly you can't win. He's really listening. He's playing the way we need him to play."

Teague's reaction: "It makes me feel like I'm improving," said the freshman point guard.

Considering the talent, it's easy to forget the youth, especially when a team is 22-1, ranked No. 1 in the polls and 8-0 in its league. Youth is always growing and maturing. And if it's maturing the right way, it's always getting better.

"We're brothers," Kidd-Gilchrist said.

They are brothers who are also developing an edge to their game. You could see a little of that Saturday at Baton Rouge, when LSU tried to push around UK and the Cats kept getting back up. Tuesday in Rupp, Tennessee pushed and Kentucky pushed back.

It turned into a scuffle early, when the Vols' Bill Hall was leaning hard on Terrence Jones. And the next thing you knew, after Jones scored on a strong move to the basket while being fouled, words were exchanged, then shoves, and then bodies rushed in and double technical fouls were called on Tennessee's Trae Golden and UK's Davis.

"Coach Cal always wants us to have each other's backs," Davis said. "We're not going to have one guy get pushed around or anything. After that we just said, 'Stop talking and let our game talk.' "

It's talking all right — a 24-point win at LSU on Saturday, a 25-point home win over Tennessee on Tuesday.

"It's scary," Kidd-Gilchrist said.

You mean it's scary how good this team can be?

"Yeah," he said.

Just in time.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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