After Kentucky merely defeated Illinois State on Monday, Marcus Lee acknowledged the team’s need to go several steps further. Search out and destroy the opposition. Make resistance unthinkable. Eat their lunch. Empty their parents’ liquor cabinet. Steal their girlfriend.
In sports parlance, the Cats have not yet developed a killer instinct.
“That’s something we’re still trying to learn,” Lee said. “We see, ‘Oh, we’re up 10, we’re up 20, we’re good.’ And that’s not how we’re supposed to play it. ‘We’re up 10, up 20, let’s get up 40.’ And that’s something we have to learn. We have to learn to keep them on the floor and then end them.”
To find an example of this kind of shock and awe, Kentucky need only go back to last season. UK regularly hammered the fight out of opponents, never more completely than in an 83-44 victory over UCLA.
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Kentucky scored the game’s first 24 points, led 41-7 at halftime and made only the most bloodthirsty of fans not want to avert their eyes.
“It was like watching somebody club baby seals,” said Jay Bilas, who will work the ESPN telecast of Kentucky’s game at UCLA on Thursday.
A month earlier, Kentucky humiliated Kansas 72-40. But that was different. By comparison, that was hotly competitive.
“The beating they put on Kansas was fun,” Bilas said. “Kansas was capable of fighting back. It just didn’t seem that day UCLA was able to punch back. If it was a fight, they would have stopped it. I felt bad for everybody involved.”
UK Coach John Calipari dismissed the idea of that game in Chicago impacting what happens in Pauley Pavilion.
“Last year was an outlier,” he said. “I had a ridiculous team. And they would go into a game like that to smoke somebody. . . . They would go in with that mentality. This team, we don’t have that mentality.”
Earlier this week, UCLA players said they weren’t ready last December for a high-profile game against an opponent like Kentucky. Guard Bryce Alford went so far as to say the Bruins were intimidated.
“We were a little shell-shocked with how big they were last year,” he said. “How they were undefeated coming in. . . . I think you could say we were a little intimidated. That was a huge basketball team.
“We know how good they are this year. But I wouldn’t say we are intimidated.”
UCLA Coach Steve Alford suggested the Bruins might be the bigger team this time. Thomas Welsh, a 7-foot sophomore, starts at center. Senior Tony Parker is a burly 6-9, 260-pound power forward. Jonah Bolden and Alex Olesinski are two 6-10 players who come off the bench.
“They really play without a center,” Alford said of the Cats. “(UK has) two very athletic four-men that really rebound the ball extremely well.”
Alford said he was concerned with the on-ball pressure Kentucky can apply. Of course, that pressure would be enhanced if Tyler Ulis plays. He sat out the second half against South Florida and the Illinois State game after sustaining a hyper-extension of his right elbow.
“They kind of bug you enough they either hurry you up or force you into bad decision-making,” the UCLA coach said.
In last year’s game, being hurried or making bad decisions would have been progress for UCLA. The Bruins didn’t score 10 points until 58 seconds into the second half.
“We got shocked right from the beginning,” Alford said. “I think it was 24-0 before we even scratched. Looking back, we were on our heels really early. We can’t be on our heels. If we get on our heels against the No. 1 team in the country, similar things happen.
“Our whole mindset is how we go about it has got to be very aggressive and it’s got to be very confident.”
Whatever happens in Pauley Pavilion, Bilas does not expect to see Kentucky again club baby seals, figuratively speaking.
But a former UCLA player, Lynn Shackelford, was not so sure. A 92-73 loss to No. 4 Kansas in the Maui Invitational made him wonder.
“Kansas destroyed them in the first half,” he said. The Jayhawks led 59-33 at halftime. “And I felt Kansas kind of got bored.”
Alford took solace in how his players responded after losing to Kentucky. The Bruins won 12 of 17 games down the stretch to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament, then advanced to the Sweet 16.
“It’s not like the whole year tanked because of that,” he said. “My hope is that lessons that were learned have been learned, and we don’t revisit that.”
Then Alford playfully granted reporters permission to enter the game and take shots if UCLA gets off to a similarly bad start against Kentucky on Thursday.
“I don’t want to be sitting through another 24-0 start,” he said.
Lee nominated for award
UK’s Marcus Lee is a nominee for the 2016 Allstate NABC Good Works Team.
The Wildcats junior is one of 154 men’s nominees, a list that also includes Corban Collins of Morehead State and Marcellus Barksdale of IUPUI, a Lexington native from Tates Creek High School. Also among the nominees are Trey Lewis of Louisville, Nigel Snipes of Western Kentucky and Louis Walker III of Thomas More.
The award recognizes community service achievements. Lee’s services includes volunteering at God’s Pantry, organizing the UK Blanket Project and working with Samaritan’s Feet.
From this year’s 154 nominees, a final roster of 10 award recipients — five players from Division I and five from Divisions II, III and the NAIA — will be announced in February.
Women’s nominees included Cortnee Walton of Louisville and Lydia Nash of Union.