All that coach-speak about heart and grit and toughness and fight and all those ingredients a team needs to be successful, especially when playing on the road, is certainly important. Sometimes, however, it just comes down to execution.
Saturday night in the great state of Alabama, Kentucky executed.
Man, did it execute. In a bounce-back 77-61 victory over the Crimson Tide, John Calipari’s Cats executed the way Nick Saban hopes his “Roll Tide Rolls!” execute Monday night in college football’s national championship game.
The Cats played with such skill and precision, you had to wonder if this was the same team that just four days before was blasted 85-67 down on the Bayou by LSU.
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Alex Poythress wasn’t the same Alex Poythress. At LSU, he was struggling and moping on his way to fouling out. At Bama, he was strong and sure-footed, scoring a career-high 25 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Marcus Lee wasn’t the same Marcus Lee. At LSU, the junior managed to collect five fouls in just five minutes on the floor. He finished with two rebounds and zero points. Saturday, Lee scored eight points and grabbed 11 rebounds. He stayed on the floor for 25 minutes.
This also was not the same team that lost the battle of the boards by double digits at LSU. Calipari said Friday he had stressed rebounding with a tough, physical practice. The stressing was successful. UK trounced the Tide 43-25 on the glass.
“They kind of dominated us on the boards early and set the tone in terms of rebounding throughout the course of the game,” Bama Coach Avery Johnson said..
Tuesday, UK couldn’t have run a proper pick-and-roll offensive play against air. Saturday, the Cats kept running it and Alabama couldn’t stop it. These were basketball beauties to behold, too, with point guard Tyler Ulis taking the perfect angle before making the perfect delivery to Poythress, who would take the ball to the basket with authority.
The biggest stat of the night wasn’t Poythress’s career-high point total; it was his career-high free-throw attempt total of 11, nine of which he converted. That number meant the 6-foot-8 senior was active. That number meant Poythress was such a consistent threat, Alabama had no choice but to foul.
OK, we know. Alabama isn’t Kansas or Oklahoma or even LSU. Johnson is just getting started. The former NBA coach will be a success at the Capstone. He’s articulate and energetic and will push a more exciting brand of basketball than was favored by his predecessor, Anthony Grant. But Johnson needs time to build.
Still, there is that question. How could Kentucky play so poorly one night and so well just four nights later? Answer: Execution, winning execution, isn’t easy. It takes teamwork and chemistry and players who possess good basketball IQs.
It is also what this Kentucky team is going to have to rely on to be, as Calipari would say, the best version of itself. It’s not going to overwhelm you with talent, like some of Calipari’s previous teams. It’s not going to beat you with brute force. It can’t just show up. It has to play and execute.
It also has the pieces to be a good execution team. Name a smarter, more efficient point guard than Ulis. Jamal Murray, who scored 21 points Saturday, is as creative a guard as there is in college hoops. Against Bama, Poythress showed what he can do. Tuesday, we saw their weaknesses. Saturday, we saw their strengths.
Getting a team to consistently execute can drive a coach crazy, of course. Even down the stretch Saturday, with the game comfortably in hand, Calipari’s voice bounced off the walls of the Coleman Coliseum as he yelled criticisms and instructions. This team needs coaching from the opening tip to the final horn.
Saturday, however, it executed those instructions to a T. As the coaches shook hands at the final buzzer, Calipari told Johnson, “We played really good. We were good today.”
Kentucky fans would like to see more of that.