On Thursday, assistant coach Joel Justus suggested that Kentucky Coach John Calipari was reasonably happy with the team’s development at this late stage of the season. “I think Cal thinks we’re in a good place,” Justus said.
After Saturday’s come-from-behind 71-63 victory at Texas A&M, Calipari sounded noticeably less positive about UK’s status going into the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
“We haven’t peaked,” he said. “Let’s just say that. We have not peaked. That’s the good news.
“The bad news is we have not peaked.”
Calipari all but said Kentucky can expect competitive games in the SEC Tournament. That would be merely an extension of what happened in the regular season.
After Kentucky outlasted Florida last weekend, Calipari said he hoped his team wouldn’t play have to play the Gators again.
To that list of teams to avoid Calipari added Texas A&M Saturday.
“Good win for us …,” Calipari said of UK outlasting the Aggies. “And I’m hoping we don’t have to play them in the tournament. Please. That’s not who we want to play.”
Both Calipari and A&M Coach Billy Kennedy spoke of the SEC Tournament as wide open. While the number of teams that can win the championship might be limited, it would see any team could win any individual game.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Calipari said. “We don’t know who will be the eight (seed) or nine (seed).” The winner of a game pitting the eight-seed against the nine-seed will be UK’s first opponent.
“All I know is all the teams in there gave us a good game,” Calipari said, “and should have beat us.”
Kennedy qualified his concurrence.
“There’s 12 teams in the league that have proven they can beat anybody,” he said. “I think it’s wide open.”
Then, Kennedy added, “I still think everything goes through Kentucky. But I think it’s definitely wide open.”
Isaiah Briscoe’s recent struggles with shooting continued. He made only one of four free throws. That made him eight of 23 (34.8 percent) from the line in the last seven games.
Briscoe missed his only two three-point shots, which made him 0-for-11 in the last seven games.
“Making free throws, making open shots, you’ve got to do it,” Calipari said. “He’s a good enough shooter to make free throws. … One of four, that’s not acceptable. You can’t have that guy in late-game (situations) if it’s a close game because they’ll foul him.”
Malik Monk has shown he can carry Kentucky in games. But he can’t be expected to do so game after game after game, Derek Willis said.
“We can’t depend on him to have 20-plus scoring games,” Willis said. “It’s not logical. You can’t put all that on Malik. That’s where everybody steps up and does other things.”
UK scored nine points in the first 10-plus minutes. UK scored 62 points in the final 29-plus minutes.
That included back-to-back lobs thrown by Dominique Hawkins and dunked by Bam Adebayo.
These were the first two of six lob dunks for Kentucky, five slammed through by Adebayo.
“I thought that was critical,” Kennedy said of UK’s lobs. The A&M coach said his defense was slow to counter Kentucky’s move to lobs.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” he said of the Cats. “Their guards did a good job knowing what to attack, and they made the right plays time after time after time.”
De’Aaron Fox also saw the lobs as key.
“It kind of takes the pressure off us,” he said, meaning UK’s guards. “If you throw two or three lobs, then their ‘bigs’ won’t help anymore. And we’ll get our guards layups and floaters. When we’re doing that …, it’s extremely hard to guard us.”
Keeping it under a hundred
In its first 14 games, Kentucky scored 100 or more points five times. The 71-63 victory at Texas A&M marked the 17th straight game UK has not cracked the century mark.
UK has not scored 100 points in a game since defeating Texas A&M 100-58 on Jan. 3.
UK scored less than 80 points just once in the first 20 games. At A&M, the Cats failed to score 80 points for the sixth time in the last 11 games.
“We’re playing differently,” Calipari said in explaining the drop off. “We’re running more clock. We’re making people play us in the half-court.”
Plus, opponents are playing differently, too.
“Teams are flying back,” Calipari said, “so we don’t get it in transition. So, they’re crowding (the lane). Which means you can’t throw one pass and shoot the ball. …
“This team could score 100 if (the opponent) plays the wrong way.”
With the regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament already clinched, Calipari acknowledged that there wasn’t much at stake in the game.
“This was kind of a throwaway game,” he said.
Then, Calipari added, “This is for your seed (in the NCAA Tournament). This is all about your seed. It’s not about the game. The better your seed, the better chance of advancing.”
Monk was the only UK player named to the 15-man list eligible for the Wooden Award All-American Team. One of the 15 will win the Wooden Award, which goes to the nation’s most outstanding player.
Besides Monk, other familiar names include Frank Mason III and Josh Jackson of Kansas, Lonzo Ball of UCLA and Justin Jackson of North Carolina.
Other players on the list were Dillon Brooks, Oregon; Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame; Markelle Fultz, Washington; Ethan Happ, Wisconsin; Josh Hart, Villanova; Luke Kennard, Duke; Lauri Markkanen, Arizona; Johnathan Motley, Baylor; Caleb Swanigan, Purdue; and Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga.