As the teams warmed up for the second half, Kentucky Associate Coach Kenny Payne had a heart-to-heart with Bam Adebayo.
Payne thought the freshman big man needed some encouragement after a scoreless and nearly rebound-less first half.
“Just telling him don’t lay in it,” Payne said of the first-half struggles. “You’re going to make a big play for this team. You’ve got to be ready for it.”
After Kentucky defeated UCLA 86-75 on Friday night, Payne cited two factors for Adebayo’s quiet first half: the Bruins concentrated their defense on Adebayo in the post, and Adebayo was over-eager.
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“So anxious,” Payne said. “He was trying to get so low in the post. And he fought it. Maybe it was a foul. Maybe it wasn’t. Just catch the ball first. You catch the ball, you’re putting the defense in a whole lot of trouble.”
Whether he scores or not, Kentucky wants the ball in Adebayo’s hands in order to make the defense react. A shifting defense can create openings for De’Aaron Fox to drive or uncontested jump shots from the perimeter.
“Bam changes the complexion of our team,” Payne said. “He gives us a post presence.”
Although Adebayo scored only two points (a dunk with 3:15 remaining), he contributed. His five assists were a career high. Payne said there were “six or seven” that Adebayo made the pass that led to the pass that set up an uncontested shot.
Adebayo shrugged off his season-low two points, which snapped a streak of 10 straight double-digit scoring games.
“It wasn’t my night tonight,” he said. “As long as we win, I really don’t care.”
Although modern sports can be numbers-crazed, Payne said that Adebayo’s value is difficult to show in numbers.
Adebayo contributes by being able to guard all five positions in addition to forcing defenses to react.
“He rebounds,” Payne said. “He’s a winner.
“Sometimes people get confused because the stats don’t blow you out of the water. Tonight we saw that you really have to be paying attention to know what he does for this team.”
Hall of Famer Magic Johnson attended the game. The Cats took his presence in stride.
“It’s good to have celebrities at the game,” Adebayo said in a deadpan tone. “They want to see good competition.”
De’Aaron Fox echoed the sentiment.
“I saw him during warm-ups,” he said. “But, I mean, it didn’t change it. We’ve had celebrities at games and stuff, so, I mean, playing on this stage, there’s going to be a lot of people there. … We’re coming out to play basketball, and that’s all we’re worried about.”
SECret no more
Kentucky will be one of three Southeastern Conference teams playing in the Elite Eight on Sunday. UK plays North Carolina in the South Region finals, while Florida plays South Carolina in the East Region finals.
“No, there are not three SEC teams in the Elite Eight,” UK Coach John Calipari said facetiously. “We’re supposed to be a bad league. That’s got to be all these other leagues, right?”
Fox vouched for the worthiness of the SEC.
“Florida blew us out at their place,” he said. “We found out then that they were a good team.
“And South Carolina was ranked when we played them. And, I mean, right now, they’re just showing them how strong our conference is. Three teams in the Elite Eight, man, that’s tough to do.”
When asked a hypothetical question about an opponent containing Fox on the drive, Adebayo said, “Him going full speed? I don’t see it.”
Here’s an update on the SEC scoring race:
Malik Monk’s 21 points increased his scoring average to 20.1 points.
Sindarius Thornwell scored 24 points for South Carolina. That increased his scoring average to 21.4 points.
Monk increased his season’s total to 742 points. That’s the fifth-highest single-season total for any UK player.
Ahead of Monk are Dan Issel (948 points in 1969-70), Jodie Meeks (854 points in 2008-09), Jamal Mashburn (767 points in 1991-92) and Issel (746 points in 1968-69).