After Kentucky’s 87-66 shutdown of Missouri on Saturday night in Rupp Arena, the talk among the collective Cats made available for postgame interviews was that the team’s late-season pivot revolved around a players’ only meeting.
Seems that when UK’s losing streak spread to four, the players gathered in their pit of misery, aired grievances, offered opinions, shared inspiration and — voilà — an organic three-game win streak rose from the ashes.
OK, whatever you think works. On the floor, the Big Blue turnaround can be better explained by a simple and age-old hoops adage: Everything looks better when the ball goes through the hoop.
This had been a bad offensive basketball team. Or at least by John Calipari’s standards, this had been a bad offensive basketball team. Its shooting percentage was mediocre, at best. It struggled to make three-pointers. It was so-so at the foul line and it committed too many careless turnovers. Most of the season, UK’s offensive efficiency ranking lingered in the 50s.
As Calipari noted Saturday night, when it comes to point production, this was often a team stuck in the 60s. And unless you are Tony Bennett and Virginia, the 60s won’t get it done in today’s basketball. Certainly not when March Madness commences.
Then, abruptly, surprisingly, after averaging 64.7 points per game in that four-game skid, UK scored 81 in a 10-point win over Alabama. Then the Cats exploded for 87 points in a 15-point road win at Arkansas. Saturday, Calipari’s club matched that point total in the 21-point mauling of Missouri.
In that 69-60 loss at Mizzou three weeks ago, Kentucky was an ice-cold 2-for-20 from the dark woods of three-point land. In the friendly confines of Rupp Arena on Saturday, the Cats went 10 of 16 from three, including a blistering 8-for-10 in the first half. No wonder UK averaged 1.353 points per possession, its highest mark in the category since a 1.402 against Texas A&M on Jan. 3 of last season. That’s right, last season.
So what gives? Why the change? Why, as Calipari insisted Saturday, are guys who shoot great in practice only to throw up airballs in games now replicating their shots when the lights come on?
There are probably multiple items on the click list, but let’s start with Jarred Vanderbilt. The 6-foot-9 freshman isn’t a great shooter, but he’s the live wire this team needed. Vanderbilt keeps possessions alive with his offensive rebounds — a career-high 15 total rebounds Saturday — his tip-outs, his relentless energy. Surely his teammates feed off that juice.
As important as it was to get Vanderbilt back from his foot injury, don’t overlook the importance of Quade Green’s return from a back problem. Green might struggle some on the defensive end, but the Philadelphia freshman can shoot. And Calipari’s willingness to play Green and fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander together has lightened Gilgeous-Alexander’s ball-handling load. As a result, turnovers have decreased. Saturday, UK committed just nine, compared to 17 assists. That was the highest assist-to-turnover ratio of the season.
That last stat appears to add numerical backing to the argument that the chemistry is better. Maybe that players-only meeting played into that as well. Previously, there were whispers you’d have a hard time getting this group to be at the same place at the same time long enough to have a meeting. The clock is ticking. Better together.
Biggest question: Can the Cats keep this up? Ole Miss, tied for last place in the SEC, arrives for UK’s home finale on Wednesday night. Then the regular-season ends with a Saturday road trip to Florida, where the Gators could shoot Dramamine commercials considering all their ups and downs.
“We’re just having fun,” said Green on Saturday. “Everybody’s smiling, chest-bumping, having a good time. We’re winning, man.”
Yes, they are. Three straight and counting. Better offense just leads to better basketball.
Mississippi at Kentucky
7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN2)
SEC men’s basketball standings