John Clay

This Kentucky basketball team may be baffling, but it’s not boring

John Calipari on his team's inconsistency

Kentucky coach John Calipari talks to media after his team had to hold on to beat Mississippi State 80-74 on Tuesday.
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Kentucky coach John Calipari talks to media after his team had to hold on to beat Mississippi State 80-74 on Tuesday.

Come on, admit it. Last year was sort of boring. Win after win after win; 38 in a row before finally taking a loss. It was the same thing, night after night after night after night. Even dominance has a downside, right?

You can’t say that about Kentucky basketball this year. No sir. These current Cats may be perplexing and frustrating and the primary reason behind an outbreak of rampant head-scratching among the Big Blue Nation, but they are not boring. You never know what you’re going to get.

Saturday at Alabama, Kentucky executed its offense like a well-oiled machine. Alex Poythress scored 25 points. Marcus Lee snatched 11 rebounds. John Calipari’s club ran the pick-and-roll like it was a demonstration drill at an area coaching clinic on the way to picking up its first true road win of the season.

Back home Tuesday night at Rupp Arena against lowly Mississippi State, however, the Cats were up-and-down again, only this time in the same game. At one point, Kentucky led 53-33. Then all of a sudden Mississippi State had cut the lead to three points, 74-71, with 1:14 remaining, before clutch free throw shooting pulled out an 80-74 win before a nervous crowd of 23,897.

Poythress, Saturday’s stud, turned timid again Tuesday, managing just one field goal in 31 minutes. Lee fouled out with just two points in 24 minutes. Freshman center Skal Labissiere managed five points in 14 minutes. Were it not for some stellar play from the Cats’ three-guard lineup, the home team would not have survived another round of “no-shows” from their mystery men in the middle.

This has to be driving Calipari crazy, right? He’s been around a long time, coached a lot of teams, done and seen it all, a Hall of Famer, but surely when a coach doesn’t know what to expect from his team that has to be maddening, right?

“It’s not driving me nuts,” Calipari said. “I feel bad for them.”

Then the coach told the story of how he had the team over to his house on Monday night and how he gave each player a Powerball ticket. Calipari had each player write down what he would do if he won Wednesday’s drawing, which is expected to produce a jackpot of over $1 billion. Then he told his players the odds of having a winning Powerball ticket are 292.2 million-to-oneet.

“But then I said you already own a ticket – you,” said Calipari, his voice rising. “It may be 50/50 that you’re going to hit the lottery (or) 70/30, but you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to want it. You have a ticket.”

We didn’t get that kind of anecdote last season, one that was about platoons and polish all the way from November until the NCAA Tournament. Last year, Calipari knew what he had. This year, he’s the first one to tell you they’re still figuring it out.

Luckily, he has some pretty good guards to bail him out. Jamal Murray scored 22 points Tuesday. Tyler Ulis had 21 points and five assists. And yet Isaiah Briscoe may have been the real star, scoring 14 points and dishing five assists.

“They are very, very good guards,” said Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland.

So good they helped the Cats win on a night when Mississippi State shot 52.9 percent, the highest percentage by a Kentucky opponent since Wichita State shot 55.1 percent against UK in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. That Wichita State team was unbeaten. This Mississippi State team is now 7-8.

So now it’s on to Auburn on Saturday where, who knows, Labissiere may finally have that “super game” UK assistant Kenny Payne predicted last week, where Poythress may play as he did Saturday on his visit to Alabama, where Lee will play with the energy that makes him so effective.

Or, well, maybe not.

We just don’t know.

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