Three things from Kentucky’s closer-than-expected 72-62 win at Missouri:
1. Bam gets the Cats out of a jam
On an off night against a bad team, Bam Adebayo was the man for the Cats. The freshman center scored 22 points, snared 15 rebounds, sank 10 of 13 free throws and blocked three shots. All he lacked was a superhero’s cape.
“If someone (an NBA team) passes on this kid, they should be f-f-f-fired,” UK coach John Calipari said after the game.
Cal’s testimonial to the North Carolina native was surely meant to rebut the growing opinion among scouts and draft gurus that the 6-foot-10 center is not a lottery pick, maybe not even a first-round pick.
Those opinions are not without merit. Adebayo has disappeared at times. He went from Dec. 3 game against UCLA until the Jan. 14 game against Tennessee without double-digit rebounds. He has taken 10 or more shots just twice in 15 SEC games.
Last Saturday at Georgia, the Bulldogs lost their post player (and best player), Yante Maten, in the first 90 seconds. You’d think that would be an opportunity for Bam to dominate the Dawgs down low. Instead, he finished with just 13 points and eight rebounds as the Cats needed to sink 17 straight free throws down the stretch to win 82-77.
Tuesday night at Mizzou Arena, Adebayo scored just five points in the first half, then gunned his motor to dominate the second. With Kentucky’s guards unable to find the range from outside, the Cats (finally) went to feeding the post, where Bam had his way with the Tigers’ front line.
Adebayo was the driving force the final 20 minutes, and he made two big plays when the Cats needed two big plays. With the game tied at 52, Adebayo produced an old-fashioned three-point play to put the Cats up (for good) 55-52 with 7:29 remaining. Less than a minute later, he jammed again at the mark to make it 57-52 with 6:36 left.
Favored to win by 17 points, Kentucky doesn’t win Tuesday without Bam.
2. Against most any other team, UK probably loses Tuesday
He was trying hard to put a positive spin on another close conference win on the road, but Calipari admitted that he told the team that it is not where it needs to be just three games away from tournament time, including a huge game Saturday (more on that later).
It is an understatement to say that Missouri is not a good basketball team. As Calipari emphasized, the Tigers fought hard on Tuesday night, and with a break here or there, Kim Anderson’s team could have pulled off a monumental upset. Instead, however, Mizzou fell to 7-20 overall and 2-13 in the league.
Kentucky improved to 23-5 overall and 13-2 in league play, but the Cats committed 17 turnovers to just 10 assists. They managed just two offensive rebounds compared to Missouri’s 16 defensive boards in the first half. Malik Monk (four of 12) and De’Aaron Fox (four of 10) were a combined eight of 22 from the floor.
Isaiah Briscoe delivered another up-and-down performance. On the plus side, the sophomore made four of six shots. On the flip side, Briscoe turned the ball over six times and fouled out.
“He was better tonight,” Calipari insisted, adding that it took a while for Briscoe to slide into a full funk, so it’s going to take a while for him to pull out of it.
Bottom line: A sloppy Kentucky struggled for most of the night. It led by just one at the half. It didn’t really put the Tigers away until the end of the game.
For whatever reason, UK hasn’t been able to consistently re-create the form from November and December, when it was overwhelming the competition.
And now ...
3. On to Saturday’s showdown with Florida
The Gators held up their end of the bargain on Tuesday night, taking care of South Carolina 81-66 in Gainesville. No center John Egbunu (out for the year with a torn ACL), no problem. Just nine minutes from supersub Canyon Barry (sprained ankle), no problem.
KeVaughn Allen scored 26 points as Florida won its ninth straight game, eight of those coming by double figures. The Gators are 13-2 in league play. They held South Carolina to 39.3 percent shooting. And after going – gasp – 0 for 17 from three in a 57-53 loss at South Carolina, the Gators were nine of 19 from behind the stripe in the O’Connell Center.
Remember, this is the same Florida team, minus Egbunu, that rolled the cats 88-66 in the Sunshine State on Feb. 4. Now Saturday brings the rematch at Rupp.
Even on its home floor, with first place in the conference and a probable No. 1 seed in the league tournament on the line, Kentucky has to play better than it has been playing. Simple as that.
The turnover trend, suddenly a major problem for a team that once took extra care of the basketball, has to stop Saturday, or these Cats will find themselves swept by those Gators.
Said Calipari, “We are a long way away.”
With a short time to go.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
Stephen F. Austin
vs. Michigan State
vs. Arizona St.
vs. North Carolina