John Clay

For Calipari’s Cats, the hard part starts now with SEC play

What makes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander an effective driver?

Kentucky assistant basketball coach Tony Barbee is asked how freshman guard Shari Gilgeous-Alexander can get the ball to the rim so effectively against taller defenders?
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Kentucky assistant basketball coach Tony Barbee is asked how freshman guard Shari Gilgeous-Alexander can get the ball to the rim so effectively against taller defenders?

For Kentucky basketball, now starts the heavy lifting.

The SEC?

Yes, the SEC.

That wasn’t always the case in years past when the league was something of an oil slick where hoops was concerned. Most years, Kentucky breezed through the conference calendar without much resistance. News flash: This does not appear to be one of those years.

In the current AP poll, Texas A&M is ranked fifth. Tennessee is 18th. Before tumbling off the voters’ ballots, Florida was ranked as high as fifth. Arkansas entered Saturday 22nd in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings. Before Saturday, Auburn was 11-1. Jeff Sagarin’s computer rates the SEC as the nation’s fifth best basketball league.

Georgia is Kentucky’s opening league foe for the 6 p.m. New Year’s Eve tilt at Rupp Arena. The Bulldogs are 64th in the kenpom rankings and 9-2 overall. Mark Fox’s team lost to San Diego State on a neutral floor and at UMass. Since the latter, Georgia beat Georgia Tech by 21 and Temple by 18.

The Dawgs also boast the league’s most underrated player in Yante Maten, a 6-foot-8 senior who is averaging 20.2 points and 9.3 rebounds. He’s a model of consistency. Maten scored 30 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the win over Temple and had 24 points in the thumping of Georgia Tech. He’s always hard to handle.

Friday, however, Kentucky was way too much for arch-rival Louisville to handle. An expected nail-biter quickly became a Rupp rout. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hopped off the bench to score 24 points. PJ Washington added 16. Hamidou Diallo scored 14. UK rolled 90-61.

As well as David Padgett had done holding U of L together, the Cardinals’ interim coach felt the bridge collapse beneath him. Not sure Rick Pitino’s presence would have made much difference. Not 29 points worth, anyway.

For Kentucky, the victory included a pair of positive signs. After four straight games in which the opponent made 10 or more threes, Louisville suffered a 3-for-25 showing from beyond the arc. And a standout Kevin Knox performance was not required for a standout win. UK’s leading scorer managed eight points and seven rebounds. He played a season-low 17 minutes. UK waltzed anyway.

After subduing ACC member Virginia Tech two weeks before, however, John Calipari’s young Cats fell victim to head swells. Next time out, in New Orleans, UCLA pin-popped the Cats’ ego 83-75. Calipari blamed the loss on arrogance. Unearned arrogance.

So, after smashing Louisville, can the Cats do a better job handling success? After all, using Calipari’s description, it is a “quick flip” from the Cards to the Dawgs. Kentucky’s five freshman starters and one freshman super-sub (Gilgeous-Alexander) will have had barely more than 48 hours to stop the back-patting over the Louisville win and focus on conference play.

They’d better. Former commissioner Mike Slive’s initiative to improve the league’s sagging basketball brand is paying dividends. Texas A&M is 3-1 against Sagarin top-50 teams. Tennessee took both Villanova and North Carolina to the wire before losing. Alabama has a pair of exciting freshmen in Collin Sexton and John Petty. Minus the injured Michael Porter, Jr., Missouri has won more games this year (9) than all of last (8).

Even the league’s bottom-feeders show promise. Vanderbilt began SEC play 5-7, but the Commodores have played a ridiculously heartless schedule. Picked to finish last, LSU is playing much harder for new coach Will Wade than it ever did for his predecessor Johnny Jones. UK visits Baton Rouge on Wednesday.

“We have no easy games left,” Calipari said Friday. “Every game we play is going to be a war.”

Typical coach-speak, right? Not this year. Not this SEC. For Kentucky basketball, the heavy lifting is just beginning.

Kentucky assistant basketball coach Tony Barbee talks about Georgia star Yante Maten. UK plays Georgia at 6 p.m. Sunday at Rupp Arena.

Georgia at Kentucky

When: Sunday, 6 p.m.

Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington

TV: ESPN

Radio: UK Radio Network

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