As Southeastern Conference play begins, there seems to be a growing consensus about Kentucky: Arguably the least experienced team in college basketball history can no longer use reliance on freshmen as an alibi.
UK Coach John Calipari said he declared this turning of a metaphorical corner before his team routed Louisville on Friday.
“We’re no longer freshmen,” Calipari said he told the players earlier in the day. Of the impulse to link a mistake to a youthful indiscretion, he said, “I’m not saying it anymore.”
Georgia Coach Mark Fox, whose team opens SEC play in Rupp Arena on Sunday, all but said Kentucky did not look like a freshman team against Louisville.
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“No surprise,” Fox said on a teleconference Saturday. “Kentucky’s hitting their stride. They have a team with immense talent and great length. They’re just coming into their own. And I thought they were dominant in many ways (against Louisville). And, again, that’s no surprise. That’s what John’s been able to do every year with his teams.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the way in Kentucky’s victory, which came six days after a sobering loss to UCLA. He said Calipari’s message about no longer being freshmen made a lasting impression.
“One of the things that stuck out: Before the game, coach said we’re no longer freshmen,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’re 11 games into the season, and we have enough experience to realize what’s going on and to put our foot on people’s necks. And I think we did that today.”
With the loss to UCLA dropping Kentucky nine places in The Associated Press Top 25, Calipari called for “smashing people,” presumably on the premise that lopsided victories can restore UK’s luster and return the Cats to contention for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Fox surely would not want to see his Georgia team smashed on Sunday. But he spoke of Kentucky routing more opponents going forward.
“What Kentucky has is they’re very comfortable and confident in how they coach young teams,” he said. “This is a young Kentucky team. Well, every Kentucky team for the last seven, eight years has been young. And so they’re comfortable and confident coaching a team like that and turning them into a terrific basketball team.
“And what you saw (against Louisville), if you watched the game, was just that.”
In the zone
Tony Barbee, who subbed for Calipari at a pre-Georgia news conference Saturday, explained why the UK coach adamantly dislikes his team playing zone defense.
“It’s very simple: accountability,” Barbee said.
Calipari finds it easier to hold players accountable for mistakes in man-to-man, Barbee said.
Dynamic vs. Dutiful
All-SEC guard J.J. Frazier scored 59 points in two regular-season games against UK last season. Although Frazier is gone, Georgia’s offense is ... better?
“We’ve become a more efficient team and a better offensive team in his absence to this point,” Fox said. “We are finishing plays at a better percentage.” Scoring and assists have increased.
“That’s not a criticism of J.J.,” Fox said.
Barbee explained. Like such recent UK stars as De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis, Frazier did not always need a prepared plan to score.
“Sometimes those guys tend to break off the offense because they can go get it by themselves ... ,” Barbee said. “Now, (Georgia has) gotten back to being efficient.”
Would a coach want a dynamic player like Frazier or players who closely follow the script?
“You want a collection of both,” Barbee said with a chuckle. “That’s when you’re really good.”
After Auburn beat Georgia 40-17 in college football’s regular season, Charles Barkley bet Fox that Auburn would win the rematch in the SEC championship game. Georgia beat Auburn 28-7 in the title game.
The stakes: dinner.
When asked if Barkley had paid off, Fox said, “No. Barkley and I have not been able to connect. And we’re likely not to be able to connect for that dinner until after the season.
“But I did see him wearing an Oklahoma jersey, so I likely will have to make sure I pick the most expensive place known to mankind.”
Georgia plays Oklahoma in the national semifinals Monday night. The winner plays the winner of the Clemson-Alabama game for the championship.
Might Fox not hold Barkley to the bet?
“Oh, no-no-no-no-no-no-no,” the Georgia coach said. “No chance of that.”
Barbee said there was no update on Jarred Vanderbilt. Of a timetable for Vanderbilt’s return, Barbee said, “It has not been discussed, so it’s hard to say. That’s a question for Cal.” ... Kevin Brown and Sean Farnham will call the game for ESPN.