John Clay: Cats show signs they're ready to break out

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014 

Since Saturday at Missouri, when Kentucky won but Mizzou scored and scored and scored some more, there was all this talk about defense and how maybe perhaps the Cats should play more zone defense.

Forget that.

Tuesday night, in beating the Ole Miss Fighting Marshall Hendersons 80-64 in Rupp Arena, Kentucky was in the zone.

Willie Cauley-Stein was in the zone — back in the zone, scoring 18 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking six shots.

Alex Poythress was in the zone, popping off the bench again to give big energy, strong finishes, including a thunderous slam on the way to 10 points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes.

Aaron Harrison was in the zone, scoring 16 points and grabbing six rebounds.

We could keep right on going down the list.

"We're the most analyzed team in the history of any sport," said UK Coach John Calipari afterward, who was in a post-game zone of his own, giving the media sort of a mini-lecture on how his young team has been dissected since last Tuesday's 87-82 loss at LSU.

"Is that the writer's opinion, or is that his hope?" said Calipari of the criticism, echoing something he hinted at Saturday in Columbia, Mo. "I don't know, you'd have to ask the writer."

In the writers' poll, the AP poll, Kentucky tumbled from 11th to 18th after the LSU loss.

Tuesday night, here on the home court, however, there wasn't much debate about the way Kentucky played in the second half. Up just a point, 35-34 at the break, the Cats put it all together in the final 20 minutes.

They held Ole Miss to 35.7 percent shooting from the floor. They shot 60 percent themselves. They outscored Mississippi 45-30, the same Mississippi that came into the game tied for second place with UK in the SEC at 6-2.

"That's a good team now," Calipari said.

It's a good team that was outrebounded 41-26 by Kentucky for the game, including 19-9 in the second half.

"A Rebel did not get a defensive rebound until the final two minutes," said Andy Kennedy, the Ole Miss coach.

Kentucky had 15 offensive rebounds for the game. Ole Miss had 12 defensive rebounds. That's a pretty good formula for getting a W.

It was good to see Willie Cauley-Stein back to being Willie Cauley-Stein. The sophomore was active and intense and a big key to Kentucky's defensive improvement.

Calipari has always favored a scheme that benefits from an effective shot-blocker under the basket. The Cats are at their best when Cauley-Stein fills that role.

But let's give some love to Poythress, the 6-foot-7 sophomore who after starting nearly every game last year is now the super sixth man on this, the "youngest team in the country," as Calipari reminds us at every chance.

Poythress fights for loose balls. He grabs that tough rebound in traffic. He finishes amid hacking arms and bumping chests. In fact, Poythress has been playing so well, Calipari said he had thought about putting the Tennessee native in the starting lineup in place of Aaron Harrison.

"I'm just proud of him. He's another one who 20 years from now, something hits him, he's not going to blame anybody. He's going to look inside and say I can make this different."

Poythress has made a definite difference.

"He is a beast," Calipari continued. "And the only guy that doesn't realize how much of a beast he is — is him. When I said that in the locker room, all 15 guys were pointing (at him). 'Who's the only one who doesn't know what kind of a beast he is?' They all pointed to him.

"He's still got a ways to go. But he's broken the barrier he needed to break to make that climb now to be something special."

Tuesday night, especially in the second half, Kentucky was a beast, putting together something special, hinting that maybe it has broken a barrier and will now start that climb.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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