Never mind that everything is supposedly bigger in Texas. Kentucky players hope the basketball is faster at Texas A&M.
UK did not score a single fast-break point in the loss at Missouri and the fluke home victory over Vanderbilt last week. Then the Cats got only six points in transition in the loss against Tennessee.
This continued a pattern. In 11 Southeastern Conference games, Kentucky has averaged 5.5 fast-break points. That’s down from the average of 12.6 points in non-conference play.
“I think it’s kind of blatant . . . ,” Wenyen Gabriel said of league opponents intending to slow down the Cats.
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Of UK’s play in an uptempo game (think West Virginia), Gabriel said, “We’re a lot better. We just have a lot of guys who are really good in the open floor.”
Kevin Knox, who scored a career-high 34 points at West Virginia agreed.
“We have some of the best transition athletes on this team,” he said. “I think that’s why West Virginia was so successful for us. Because we were playing so fast and that’s what we like to do.”
Gabriel pointed out that the high school games were typically fast-break affairs. “That’s just what we’re really comfortable in,” he said.
While pointing out that not all SEC teams will try to make Kentucky play five-on-five, Coach John Calipari said the experience in such games can pay long-term dividends.
“It’s good because in the NCAA Tournament, that’s what your games are going to be,” he said. “It’s not going to be run up and down the court and go crazy. . . . It’ll be closer to the vest. So they’re learning.”
A&M center Tyler Davis scored 21 points against UK in the first game. He’s averaging almost a double-double: 14.4 points and 8.9 rebounds.
Davis has been a foundational piece for the Aggies in a turbulent season.
“He’s having a really good season,” Coach Billy Kennedy said Monday. “He’s been consistent in his play night in and night out. … He’s been our best leader on and off the floor. He’s just really matured and grown tremendously. He continues to work on his jump shot and his free throws in practice. He shoots more free throws than anybody on our team. . . . He’s been our best player and our most consistent player all year.”
Davis made a believer out of Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin.
“Tyler Davis is as good as advertised,” Martin said. “He is a presence. He scores it down low, and he has really improved his game. . . . It was a learning experience for our young big guys.”
UK knows it’s facing a better Texas A&M team than the one that lost 74-73 in Rupp Arena on Jan. 9.
“Makes a big difference when the guys are healthy and feel good about their bodies…., “ Kennedy said after the Aggies beat South Carolina 83-60. “We were in attack mode from the beginning of the game, and that was a big key … we played each possession with a sense of urgency.
Added guard Admon Gilder: “It felt how it felt at the beginning of the year. Everybody is going out there and playing hard.”
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said of the Aggies, “They got their team together again, and that nucleus from heaven. They’re real good. There’s a reason they were in the top five in the country.” A&M was in the top 10 five straight weeks, capped by No. 5 during Christmas week.
On Jan. 8, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes all but predicted a resurgence by A&M.
“I still think they’ll be there when it’s all said and done,” he said.
▪ Kennedy pooh-poohed the idea of A&M-Kentucky being an especially big game. “In this league, every game is big,” he said. That echoed what he said after A&M won 81-80 at Auburn on Wednesday. “The SEC is no joke . . . ,” he said. “We were very fortunate to get out of here with a win.”
▪ Dave Flemming, Dan Dakich and sideline reporter Kris Budden will call the game for ESPN.