John Clay

John Clay: In a week’s time, Kentucky basketball goes from despair to domination

Kevin Stallings praises Tyler Ulis

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings talks about Tyler Ulis after the Kentucky guard scored 21 points in UK's 76-57 win over the Commodores.
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Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings talks about Tyler Ulis after the Kentucky guard scored 21 points in UK's 76-57 win over the Commodores.

It was just last Saturday that Kentucky flat-out gave a game away at Auburn. Up two with 1:40 to go, the Cats lost by five. Tyler Ulis wasn’t happy, expressing his anger by calling out teammates. Again. John Calipari wasn’t happy. No one was happy.

In fact, you thought, well, maybe this is the way it’s going to be with this Kentucky basketball team. A good game will be followed by a bad game, will be followed by … rinse and repeat. May the circle be unbroken. You thought, well, this team is just an all right team, a place-holder until Calipari’s next Fort Knox haul of recruiting gold arrives in time for next season.

And then Thursday night happened. Out in Arkansas, always a tough place to play, a place where John Calipari had come up empty all three times as the UK coach, the Cats rocked the Razorbacks 80-66.

And then Saturday happened. Back home in snow-covered Lexington, playing their second game in less than 48 hours, the Cats imposed their will on a previously surging Vanderbilt by sending the Commodores back to the drawing board thanks to a 76-57 dismantling.

“We just got outplayed in pretty much every facet of the game,” said Vandy coach Kevin Stallings afterward. “That pretty much sums it up.”

“This team is getting better!” said UK coach John Calipari.

So how did Kentucky go from despair to domination in a week’s time?

“We lost some games we shouldn’t have lost,” said freshman guard Jamal Murray.

Yes, but …

“We focused on playing defense,” said senior forward Alex Poythress.

Yes, but …

“Cal’s just been stressing to us that we have to refuse to lose,” said Ulis.

Bingo.

Just maybe, somewhere in the span of this week, this Kentucky team decided it would refuse to be the team it has been. It refused to come unprepared. It refused to let guys be “no-shows” — the catch-phrase of the week. It refused to be less than the team it could be.

Plus, Calipari did another smart thing. Before heading to Arkansas, the coach decided to do more scrimmaging in practice. That leads to more physical play, more head-knocking, more competition and, in the end, more confidence.

“Last year we scrimmaged every day because we had 10 guys,” Ulis said. “We were at each other every day in practice. With us being so competitive in practice, it helps us out in the game.”

Consider that before Saturday, Vanderbilt led the SEC in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 37.3 percent. Kentucky shot an even 55 percent against the ’Dores, UK’s highest percentage in its seven conference games, its second-highest percentage of the season.

On the defensive end, Kentucky held Vandy to just 32 percent shooting from the floor, the lowest field goal percentage by an SEC opponent this season and the second-lowest of the entire season.

“That’s the best defensive game we’ve had,” Ulis said. “That’s what we need to do every game because in order for us to win, we have to be a defensive team.”

OK, OK, Calipari has been waiting to speak. Well, not waiting. When a media member tried to ask the UK coach about the week’s tunaround, Calipari was rolling with his answer before the question had even approached the finish line.

“Anybody that thinks this team is not getting better, you’re not watching,” the coach said. “Dickie (Vitale) came in and talked to me and said, ‘You know this is one team that’s not getting better.’ I said, ‘So you’re not watching college basketball that much.’ Like, what are you talking about?

“… This team is getting better. Derek Willis is getting better. Tyler’s better. Jamal’s better. Isaiah (Briscoe) is better. They’re all better. Skal (Labissiere) is better. Alex is better.”

A week ago, the Big Blue Nation would have given that assessment a collective eye-roll. Now, it has been given two very strong reasons to believe.

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