Anyone who watched the last three UK basketball games — and the four games before those — would be hard-pressed to disagree with what John Calipari said following the Cats’ resounding 87-66 win over Missouri on Saturday night.
“Right before your eyes,” the coach said, “we’re becoming a better basketball team.”
These Cats are doing just that, following up the first four-game losing streak of Calipari’s nine-year tenure in Lexington with a trio of impressive, double-digit victories over Alabama, Arkansas and Mizzou — three teams projected to be in the NCAA Tournament field.
There are many reasons for the turnaround, but one that just about everyone has noticed by now is Calipari’s all-freshman lineup of Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and PJ Washington.
“Sometimes you’ve got to put different guys on the floor,” Calipari said Saturday night. “Dudes that are out there playing the most minutes are the toughest guys we have. They told me after Arkansas, ‘Your bench scored 36 points.’ Yeah, because three of my best players are coming off the bench. We’re going to score a lot of points.”
It was actually 38 points delivered by the UK bench against Arkansas. That group included Green, Washington and Vanderbilt.
The offensive numbers those three freshmen, Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander have put up while on the floor together over the last three games have been mind-boggling.
In the three victories over Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri, that group of five players has shared the court for a total of 23 minutes and 57 seconds, barely more than one half of basketball.
In that 23 minutes and 57 seconds, the freshman five have scored a whopping 74 points, outscored their opponents by a total of 28 points, outrebounded their opponents 28-12, and committed just four turnovers. Impressive stuff.
The scoring total itself is astounding. Extrapolated over a full 40-minute game, it would be 124 points.
The group of five made its first major contribution toward the end of the Alabama game, turning a 59-58 deficit into a 64-61 lead in a span of a little over a minute. With 3:35 left and UK holding onto a 69-67 lead, Green, Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox, Vanderbilt and Washington shared the floor for an 11-4 run that put the Tide away and snapped the Cats’ four-game skid.
The happy times seemed short-lived three days later.
Kentucky was in a 9-0 hole at Arkansas when the same five Cats found themselves on the court together for the first time that night. They traded baskets with the Hogs over the next few minutes and broke up down 17-8, still trailing by nine points but at least on the scoreboard. The score was the same 35 seconds later when Calipari made a substitution to get the five together again. This time, they outscored Arkansas 7-0 over a span of 1 minute and 53 seconds to close within two and make it a game again.
No great runs were needed against Missouri on Saturday night — the Cats won by 21 points, after all — but these five players were still impressive when together, outscoring the Tigers 25-17, outrebounding them 7-2, committing just one turnover and allowing zero second-chance opportunities in 6 minutes and 24 seconds as a unit.
“What happens when that’s your team and you can trust each other? You can risk more,” Calipari said. “The more you can risk, the better you’re going to be, especially turning people over, getting some breakouts and getting some free baskets. But no one will risk if they think they’re on the court by themselves.”
Calipari and his players also know that — however well these five freshmen are playing — UK will need more for another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Recent developments indicate the good play might be contagious.
Wenyen Gabriel, who has started the past four games for UK but hasn’t played more than 18 minutes in any of the three victories, was nonetheless crucial to the Cats’ success down the stretch against Arkansas.
The energetic sophomore played alongside four of the five aforementioned freshmen during three separate stretches in the final 12:37 of that game. Kentucky outscored Arkansas by 11 points during those three stretches, and the Cats ended up with an 87-72 victory. Gabriel didn’t leave the court for the final 4:42.
Freshman Hamidou Diallo — mired in a terrible slump going into Saturday night’s game against Missouri — scored 11 points (including going 3-for-3 from three-point range) and played 25 minutes against the Tigers, his most court time in eight games.
“I gave Hami a hug in front of the team,” Calipari said afterward. “They gave him a standing ovation. You know, it’s been hard, and I wasn’t going to kick him to the curb. I wasn’t going to throw him under the bus.”
Calipari said he’s been in his office at the Joe Craft Center at 11 o’clock at night in recent weeks, and, “I look out and he’s out there shooting. I feel so good that I can stick with him.”
Nick Richards, who has started all 29 of UK’s games at center but is seeing his playing time diminish, will be needed down the stretch as well.
“Yeah, he’s important,” Calipari said after Richards played a scoreless nine minutes Saturday. “He and Sacha (Killeya-Jones) both. … You put one in and then you try the other, and whoever has it going you can go with him. Because we’re going to play some teams that have a guy that they can guard better than Jarred or PJ because of size. Or Wenyen, because of physique.”