John Clay

For Kentucky to soar in NCAA Tournament, De’Aaron Fox must keep flying

Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox (0) drives against Georgia forward Yante Maten (1) during the first half of UK’s 71-60 win in the Southeastern Conference tournament on Friday, March 10, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox (0) drives against Georgia forward Yante Maten (1) during the first half of UK’s 71-60 win in the Southeastern Conference tournament on Friday, March 10, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press

The tag line on De’Aaron Fox’s Twitter page: “Be Phenomenal or Be Forgotten.”

You can argue this 2016-17 edition is no one-man team. You can make the case for Malik Monk’s point production or Isaiah Briscoe’s will to win or Bam Adebayo’s recent consistency. You can warn against overlooking the senior contributions of Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis and Mychal Mulder.

For my money, however, these Wildcats will make a sizable dent in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament only if De’Aaron Fox, their fleet point guard, hits on all cylinders.

That’s the Fox we saw last weekend in Nashville as Kentucky captured yet another SEC Tournament title. The freshman earned Most Valuable Player honors after scoring 66 points, making 21 of 34 shots and 21 of 30 free throws, as UK handled Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas in succession.

It was a throwback to the Fox we witnessed before injuries and illness threw obstacles in his course. A sprained ankle limited him to eight minutes in the Jan. 21 win over South Carolina. A case of the flu scratched him from the Jan. 31 overtime win over Georgia. A bruised knee kept him out of the Feb. 25 home win over Florida.

“I hadn’t been the same as before my sickness and injury,” he said in UK’s happy locker room Sunday at Bridgestone Arena. “I think right now I’m playing my best brand of basketball, as well.”

Truth be told, Fox is actually better than before. His turbo speed has never been an issue, but his perimeter shot was an obvious glass jaw. Defenders backed off to keep Fox out of the lane even if it meant allowing the open jumper, if only because the freshman rarely made them pay.

No more. Before Feb. 21, Fox made eight of 50 three-point shots for a paltry 16 percent. In his six games since, he is 7-of-12 from beyond the arc for 58.3 percent. At the SEC Tournament, Fox was 3-of-5 from three.

“Hard work,” he said when asked the reason for the difference. “Just getting in the gym and getting up shots. I shot well from outside in high school so I knew I could do it.”

His most memorable three (so he thought) of the weekend was instead a two-pointer. With Saturday’s semifinal tied at 40 with Alabama, Fox buried a shot from the left wing — one foot on the line — while being fouled by Bama’s Braxton Key.

“I thought it was a three,” Fox said. “When I went to the bench I asked Joel (Justus) if they counted it as a two, he said yes. That was fine. I went to the line and hit my free throw. It gave us momentum more than anything.”

He has a knack for that. Fox is Kentucky’s Mariano Rivera, the closer who is a difference-maker at the end of games. Clinging to a 62-61 lead over the Crimson Tide, Fox scored nine straight points — on the way to a career-high 28 — to give UK separation and a spot in Sunday’s finals.

There, Fox added 18 more before hearing his named called by ESPN’s Kaylee Hartung as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “It was great,” he said smiling, “just to show the testament to my work ethic over the last two months.”

Now there’s this bigger tournament on the way to the goal of a national championship. No one factor ensures success, of course, but surely Fox’s role ranks at or near the top.

“Me playing at my best gives us a better chance to win,” he admitted Sunday, “but there have been games where I haven’t been in it and other guys have picked up the slack. We know that one person isn’t going to solidify the success of this team.”

Maybe not, but Fox is still the fleet guy that makes Kentucky go.

De’Aaron Fox 2016-17 game-by-game

Date

Opponent

MP

FG

3P

FT

O-D-R

PF

TP

A

TO

BS

ST

11/11/16

S F Austin

30

3-9

0-2

6-6

2-2-4

3

12

12

3

0

3

11/13/16

Canisius

33

6-13

0-3

9-9

1-3-4

1

21

3

2

0

0

11/15/16

vsMich St

29

3-10

0-2

6-6

0-4-4

2

12

6

3

1

1

11/20/16

Duquesne

31

5-13

1-2

5-8

1-6-7

2

16

6

1

0

3

11/23/16

Cleve St

33

6-15

0-2

4-7

0-4-4

1

16

11

2

1

2

11/25/16

UT-Martin

28

7-12

0-3

2-4

1-5-6

2

16

5

4

0

3

11/28/16

vsAriz St

31

6-9

1-1

1-2

2-9-11

3

14

10

4

0

2

12/3/16

UCLA

34

8-20

1-4

3-5

0-2-2

4

20

9

2

0

1

12/7/16

Valpo

29

3-9

0-1

3-8

1-6-7

1

9

5

1

1

2

12/11/16

vsHofstra

24

5-8

0-1

5-5

0-5-5

3

15

2

2

0

0

12/17/16

vsUNC

35

9-21

0-2

6-7

0-4-4

1

24

10

2

0

2

12/21/16

@U of L

34

7-15

1-3

6-10

0-2-2

3

21

3

4

0

2

12/29/16

@Miss

23

3-10

0-2

1-3

0-5-5

2

7

7

1

0

3

1/3/17

Tex A&M

28

5-9

0-1

5-8

1-4-5

0

15

6

3

0

2

1/7/17

Arkansas

36

10-16

0-2

7-7

0-6-6

2

27

6

2

0

1

1/10/17

@Vandy

25

11-17

0-1

0-0

0-5-5

4

22

2

1

0

1

1/14/17

Auburn

27

6-11

1-2

0-2

1-3-4

5

13

5

1

0

1

1/17/17

@Miss St

36

8-15

0-3

5-9

0-5-5

0

21

5

3

0

1

1/21/17

S Carolina

8

3-3

0-0

0-1

0-1-1

0

6

1

0

0

0

1/24/17

@Tenn

25

4-9

2-2

7-8

0-0-0

4

17

4

2

1

2

1/28/17

Kansas

38

5-12

0-2

0-0

0-2-2

3

10

2

5

0

2

1/31/17

Georgia

DNP

2/4/17

@Florida

25

5-11

0-1

9-10

0-3-3

4

19

0

3

0

0

2/7/17

LSU

33

7-13

1-2

1-1

0-4-4

2

16

6

3

0

3

2/11/17

@Alabama

30

3-12

0-2

1-1

1-0-1

4

7

3

2

0

2

2/14/17

Tenn

32

5-13

0-2

3-5

0-3-3

5

13

6

0

1

2

2/18/17

@Georgia

25

4-14

0-2

8-10

1-4-5

3

16

5

1

0

3

2/21/17

@Missouri

34

4-10

1-2

4-6

1-4-5

2

13

4

2

0

0

2/25

Florida

DNP

2/28/17

Vanderbilt

26

5-9

1-1

2-2

0-4-4

1

13

1

5

0

0

3/4/17

@Tex A&M

25

6-13

2-4

5-5

0-3-3

3

19

1

1

0

0

3/10/17

vsGeorgia

27

7-12

1-2

5-8

2-1-3

4

20

4

2

0

1

3/11/17

vsAlabama

35

8-12

1-2

11-15

0-5-5

2

28

2

5

0

2

3/12/17

vsArkansas

26

6-10

1-1

5-7

2-1-3

3

18

2

2

0

2

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