UK Men's Basketball

Mark Story: In the land of Hogs, did UK find a frontline?

Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) hit a short jumper over Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley. Labissiere, who finished with 11 points and three blocked shots, just “took what the defense gave me,” he said.
Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere (1) hit a short jumper over Arkansas forward Moses Kingsley. Labissiere, who finished with 11 points and three blocked shots, just “took what the defense gave me,” he said. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

It was just one second-half sequence.

Skal Labissiere made an aggressive move to the basket, only to see his shot miss.

There fighting through physical contact to get the rebound was Derek Willis.

His attempt at a follow rolled around the rim and fell off.

Labissiere fought again for the board, but couldn’t get it.

So the effort didn’t even end with a Kentucky basket. Yet it told everything about a much-needed UK victory.

Getting strong efforts from frontline players Willis and Labissiere, No. 23 Kentucky (14-4, 4-2 SEC) gave John Calipari his first win at Arkansas as UK head coach with an 80-66 victory.

Willis, starting in place of Marcus Lee after recording a double-double (12 points, 12 rebounds) at Auburn, backed up that performance with 12 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.

Labissiere, pressed into vital playing time by foul trouble to Lee and Alex Poythress, had 11 points and three blocked shots.

It was the freshman big man’s first double-figure scoring game since he had 10 points against Eastern Kentucky in December. It was his first double-figure scoring game against a power-five conference foe as a Kentucky Wildcat.

I love Marcus Lee, and I love Alex Poythress. But if these other two are better, they are playing. That’s how it is.

UK Coach John Calipari

Maybe this was a one-game thing — or maybe in its 18th game, Kentucky figured out how to make its season a success.

“I love Marcus Lee, and I love Alex Poythress,” Calipari said afterward of UK’s primary interior players to this point in the season. “But if these other two are better, they are playing. That’s how it is.”

In the land of pigs and sooey, Willis and Labissiere were better.

Calipari attributed Labissiere’s improved play to a difference in how he was used. Rather than try to have the willowy 6-foot-11, 225-pound freshman operate out of the post, UK let Labissiere face up from the high post and shoot jump shots.

When a couple went down, you could see the pep in Skal’s step increase.

“I kind of took what the defense gave me,” Labissiere said. “My teammates and Coach Cal put me in great situations to have great looks to score. And I took advantage of it.”

Calipari said he takes responsibility for some of Labissiere’s struggles this season.

“I’m trying to figure out this team, and I’m trying to figure out individuals,” Calipari said. “In my genius ways, I’m trying to post him up; well, maybe he’s a jump-shooting big man. Well, let him shoot jump shots.”

Even with Labissiere looking more comfortable out of middle pick-and-pop situations, Calipari said he needs to improve his conditioning.

“Now, he’s got to get into better shape,” Cal said. “He can’t stay in the game that long. And you do have to fight and play tough. … But if he’ll block shots and rebound, I’ll let him shoot jump shots.”

Willis earned the start Thursday night off more than his strong performance at Auburn, Calipari said.

We were the aggressor, and it stayed that way for the whole game.

UK’s Derek Willis

“He was the leading rebounder in our last two practices,” Calipari said.

Willis said some rugged Kentucky practices since the come-from-ahead loss at Auburn set the tone for what happened Thursday night.

“The bigs really had hard workouts with Kenny Payne,” Willis said of the UK assistant coach. “A lot of conditioning, a lot of physicality. It’s been tough. But it paid off huge. We were the aggressor (against Arkansas), and it stayed that way for the whole game.”

Calipari said Willis has earned the right to more minutes.

“Derek Willis makes us a better team,” the Kentucky coach said. “You’ve got to put people on the bench and give him his minutes.”

Arkansas (9-9, 3-3) is not a great team. But it had won three of its last four, and two Calipari-coached Kentucky Final Four teams failed to win in Bud Walton Arena.

Amazingly, backcourt-dependent UK saw its three starting guards — Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe — combine to shoot 3 of 20 in the first half.

Yet the Cats led 36-24.

Thanks to its front court. Who would have guessed that?

In the second half, Ulis (17 of his game-high 24 points after halftime) and Murray (14 of his 19) got things going.

But this season can be so much easier on Kentucky’s guards — and so much more successful in the UK victory ledger — if Willis and Labissiere can replicate what they did in Fayetteville.

Or if their strong play motivates Poythress and Lee to better performances.

Or all of the above.

What we do know is, with Vanderbilt coming to Rupp Arena Saturday, the Kentucky season is a lot more interesting.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments