All that hand-wringing over this Kentucky basketball team that’s been going on in the commonwealth for most the season?
Alabama Coach Avery Johnson isn’t hearing it. Especially after his Alabama team came into Rupp Arena on Saturday placed third in a tough Southeastern Conference and left Lexington with an 81-71 loss.
These Wildcats can still make a run. And they still have time to put it all together.
“They are still a dangerous team, having the depth and the length and size that they have on their team,” Johnson said of these Cats, who had been losers of four straight going into Saturday. “They may have four losses, but they weren’t against a YMCA team. They played Missouri, Tennessee, A&M, Auburn. Pretty good teams, right?”
Four likely NCAA Tournament teams, in fact. As is Alabama.
Johnson said the Cats played like “a really hungry basketball team” and brought “lots of energy.”
“That’s going to make Cal happy right there — when he hears that,” said UK point guard Quade Green with a huge grin, knowing those descriptors haven’t been used often this season. “That’s going to make him really happy.”
Johnson also used another word to describe these Wildcats on this Saturday: “Desperate.”
The skid going into this weekend was UK’s worst since the final season under Billy Gillispie nine years ago. It was John Calipari’s longest as a head coach in 13 years, when one of his Memphis teams did it.
The players themselves?
“I don’t think anybody in the locker room ever lost four games in a row in their life,” Green said. “Through AAU, high school — so this was really hard on all of us. And we had to step it up.”
Not only did they step up, they delivered a team effort. The type of effort that wins postseason games.
All eight UK players who spent more than five minutes on the court Saturday finished with at least five points and at least four rebounds or four assists. Five Wildcats scored in double figures, including Jarred Vanderbilt, who did it for the first time in his 10 games at UK.
Vanderbilt’s description of the postgame locker room: “Very exciting. Relief — you know what I’m saying? We had lost four in a row,” he said, as if it had to be repeated.
There probably wasn’t anyone wearing blue and white in Rupp Arena unaware of the skid.
There had been talk all week of missing the NCAA Tournament. With a 6-7 record in the SEC and more tough games left, it seemed like a realistic possibility.
“I’m not listening to them,” Calipari said Saturday. “What, you just want to know who won or lost? Are you seeing that the team is getting better?”
This UK team (now 18-9 and 7-7 in the SEC) is getting better, according to its coach. And this team can be a formidable one in March, according to the coach they beat Saturday afternoon.
Those eight players that played more than five minutes against Alabama included seven freshmen and one sophomore, as Calipari is quick to remind. The SEC is much better this season than in years past, as Calipari and Johnson both said again Saturday. And UK went into the day with the toughest strength of schedule in the country this season, according to the RPI.
“We should have the same respect that all these other leagues are getting with this league this year,” Calipari said. “Wait a minute, you lost four in a row; you wanted to jump off a bridge. I know, but think about who we lost to. … I mean, if we’d have won one, I probably would have been surprised.”
No one likes to lose, but could losing four straight have actually helped this young bunch?
“I felt like everybody got in the gym either early in the morning or stayed late after practice or before practice — just working on their games,” said PJ Washington. “It starts with every player, and every player’s been getting better.”
“I feel like we definitely came together more,” Vanderbilt said. “We started trusting each other more, and we started realizing that this is almost the end of the season, so, we need to make some changes now. Before it’s too late.”
Maybe getting hit in the mouth a time or four is exactly what this team needed.
Whatever they learned about themselves, they did find out they don’t like losing basketball games. Green said he figured no one on the team had ever lost four in a row. Washington grinned when asked if it had ever happened to him.
“Not ever,” he said. “I’ve always won games wherever I’ve been. So this is new for me. And I’m just glad we’re not losing anymore.”