Before Kentucky’s 99-76 victory Thursday night, Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy saw UK as a national contender now and, more importantly, come March.
“A team that’s going to be in the conversation for the Final Four,” he said.
A former UK All-American saw Bam Adebayo as a key player in making Kentucky that kind of team.
“If they’re going to be a contender for a national title, they’ve got to get Bam more involved,” Dan Issel said recently. “He certainly has things to learn, but, man, is he good.”
Like all UK fans, Issel saw Adebayo overpower Louisville’s front line last week. The only problem was Adebayo did not get the chance to do that more often.
“He has to get more touches,” said Issel, a prolific post player in his time. “And, the reason being if they double-team him, he’s an excellent passer out of the double team.”
The value of a more involved Adebayo was on display at Ole Miss. The freshman from Little Washington, N.C., scored a career-high 25 points. He took a career-high 19 shots, which was more than double his average of 7.8 going into the game.
“Every team needs a post presence,” Adebayo said. “That’s a big emphasis. Instead of (opponents) focusing all on our guards, they need to focus on the post, too.”
Adebayo’s play seemed to settle Kentucky into a comfortable groove. If repeatable, that comfort zone can take UK a long way.
To explain the importance of Adebayo, UK Coach John Calipari dusted off a favorite line.
“If you don’t have a post presence, your team is a fraud,” he said. “It is. Because there are going to be games you miss shots, and you’re going to lose. If you’re trying to win six in a row at the end of the year, and you don’t have a post player, I’m sorry. It’s not happening.”
UK players don’t need convincing about the difference Adebayo can make. It’s been emphasized since the loss to Louisville.
“They know it,” Calipari said. “We made it clear. That when he gets it, it puts pressure on the defense, and helps us all.”
At least statistically, no UK teammate benefited more than Isaiah Briscoe. He scored 19 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and got credit for 11 assists. It was the third triple-double in program history, and the second this season (De’Aaron Fox had a disputed triple-double against Arizona State).
Briscoe, who said most of his assists probably came from throwing “alleys” to Adebayo, said recent practices made feeding the big man a habit.
“When we scrimmage, we have segments where the ball’s got to touch Bam’s hands first before anybody can shoot the ball,” Briscoe said. “If he continues to play like this, we have no choice but to get him the ball.”
Issel has noticed how willing Adebayo is to share the ball.
“He doesn’t seem to be a selfish kid,” Issel said. “If they run a double-team at him, he’s more than content to pass out of it. I don’t know why he doesn’t touch the ball a lot more.
“It sure looks to me, as a far-away observer, that they have to go through Bam. And that helps everybody. That loosens up (the defense). When he starts dunking on people, and they have to run a second guy at him, that’s good for everybody.”
As a 60-39 halftime lead suggested, a lot went right for Kentucky in the first half.
If the pre-game talk was accurate, Ole Miss hoped to slow down Kentucky. The Rebels failed miserably. UK scored 18 points off fast breaks in the opening half. That put the Cats on a pace to smash their previous high this season (21 against Arizona State).
Perhaps as an indication of emphasis on half-court play, Kentucky made a concerted effort to get the ball to Adebayo. In one sequence, he touched the ball five times in seven possessions.
Adebayo scored two baskets, the first off a pretty drop-step move against Sebastian Saiz. On another possession, his pass out of the post set up a three-pointer by Mychal Mulder.
“As imposing a freshman as I think I’ve ever seen,” Kennedy said of Adebayo.
Adebayo’s nine shots in the first half surpassed his shot attempts in six previous games. His six-for-nine shooting, plus repeated drives to the baskets, made three-point shooting irrelevant. Only seven of UK’s 38 shots in the first half came from beyond the arc. Monk made three of four three-point shots in a 24-point first half.
Meanwhile, Ole Miss struggled throughout the half. The Rebels’ point guard, Cullen Neal, picked up his second foul with 16:56 left. He fouled Fox, who had stolen the ball from Neal.
Kentucky’s defense contributed to Neal’s third foul, which he picked up with 11:05 left while trying to ward off Briscoe’s defense.
Neal, who had had 20 assists and only one turnover in the last three games, had one assist and two turnovers against UK.
In contrast to Kentucky, Ole Miss got three-point happy early. Coming into the game, only 38.4 percent of the Rebels’ shots came from three-point range. Six of the first 13 were from beyond the arc as Kentucky established control.
While Briscoe approached a triple-double, Kentucky’s intent to involve Adebayo in the offense continued into the second half.
Adebayo touched the ball on seven of UK’s first nine trips downcourt. That included post-up shots on the first two.
Texas A&M at Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)