UK Men's Basketball

Bilas: Kentucky can be ‘as good as anybody’ in March

Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, center, drives to the basket in the first half.
Kentucky guard Jamal Murray, center, drives to the basket in the first half.

With games at LSU and Alabama this coming week, Kentucky’s pedestrian 2-2 road record away from Rupp Arena might roil the Big Blue Nation.

It shouldn’t, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said.

The message sent by UK’s .500 record away from home? “That they’re a normal, really good team,” Bilas said.

Bilas, who will work the ESPN telecast of the game at LSU on Tuesday, echoed something UK Coach John Calipari has said repeatedly. Except for the same blue-and-white colors, this Kentucky team does not resemble last season’s powerhouse.

“This team is going to have hiccups,” Bilas said. “It’s not going to be like last year or 2012.”

That said, Bilas saw Kentucky as capable of winning a national championship. He said this before Kentucky looked more like a contender in beating Ole Miss Saturday night.

“They can be as good as anybody this year by the end of it,” Bilas said. “But they’re not the best team right now.

“Last year, they were the best team by far. (Going) undefeated was not a crazy thing to talk about. This year is totally different.”

To bolster his argument that Kentucky can be significantly improved by March, Bilas offered two examples.

One was Maryland freshman Diamond Stone, who scored 39 points against Penn State on Wednesday.

“Earlier in the year, people wondered if he could play or not,” Bilas said.

The other example was last year’s Duke team.

Early in the season, the Blue Devils struggled guarding Miami’s pick-and-roll action, and then retreated into a zone against Louisville. Duke was called “a substandard defensive team,” Bilas said. “The discussion was they can’t guard anybody. They can’t stay in front of anybody.

“By the end of the year, they were one of the five best defensive teams in the country.”

Of course, Duke won the 2015 national championship.

“You can get a lot better during the course of the year,” Bilas said. “And this is the time (between semesters) when a lot of the big jumps happen.”

Jordan Smith a hit

There was a buzz in Rupp Arena about two hours before tip-off. That’s when Jordan Smith came to center court to practice singing the national anthem.

By the time he finished the warm-up, several TV and newspaper reporters gathered to speak to Smith.

“Oh, it’s going to feel incredible,” he said of singing the Anthem with 20,000-plus fans in the then-empty seats. “It’s the epitome of what I’ve always wanted to do.”

This high followed another, potentially more long-lasting thrill: Smith proposed to Kristen Denny Friday night. She accepted.

The proposal came in Boston after Smith sang the national anthem in hockey’s Winter Classic in nearby Gillette Stadium. The couple had dinner at the Top of the Hub, which is on a 52nd floor overlooking Boston.

Smith proposed on a carriage ride after dinner.

His every move Saturday drew people seeking autographs, pictures or to simply offer words of encouragement. Of course, Smith, a native of Harlan, became famous when he won the televised singing competition The Voice.

When asked about life as a celebrity, Smith said, “It’s a little crazy. I’m enjoying it.”

Smith said he tries to welcome and inspire his fans.

A lifestyle Smith called a “complete whirlwind” continues Sunday, when he planned to fly to Los Angeles to work on a new album.

Skal’s ‘first step’

Freshman Skal Labissiere’s nine points were five more than he’d had in UK’s three most recent games. He matched a season-high with three offensive rebounds.

“It’s a first step,” Calipari said. “There’s still a lot of other stuff still there. But, like, I want him to smile and have fun playing.”

With players like Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Karl-Anthony Towns as the standard, it can be hard, if not impossible, for Labissiere to meet expectations.

But the way cheers erupted each time Labissiere scored or fought for a rebound, the fans clearly are on his side.

“The whole state, I believe the whole country, wants this kid to do well,” Calipari said.

Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy watched Labissiere play in the Memphis area.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Kennedy said. “I like the kid. I’m a fan of the kid. We knew that if we allowed him to get open, he’d hit those face-up shots. It’s what he does. … We didn’t put our bodies on him nearly enough, which allowed him to get some looks at the basket.”

Masked man

Marcus Lee wore a protective guard over his eyes and nose. UK said Lee got hit in the face during a practice session earlier in the week. He got hit in about the same place as he did at UCLA.

Calipari said bleeding from the nose led to the decision to have Lee wear a mask. His 13 points, eight rebounds and two blocks suggested the mask was no hindrance.

‘Really fun’

Reece King, a 13-year-old cancer patient, attended the game. On the previous Monday, he completed more than three years of chemo treatment for leukemia.

King also attended UK’s practice Friday. “Really fun,” he said.

As part of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, King is trying to raise $1 million for cancer research.

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