John Clay

John Clay: Thanks to its guards, Kentucky basketball hits high gear

John Calipari on bashing the Bulldogs

Kentucky coach John Calipari talks about his team's 82-48 win over Georgia.
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Kentucky coach John Calipari talks about his team's 82-48 win over Georgia.

There was under four minutes left in the first half in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night when Kentucky pushed the basketball up the middle of the floor and kicked it to Jamal Murray, who had somehow slipped free from the Georgia defense in the left corner. It was a textbook catch-and-shoot. Not sure the ball even touched the net. Swish.

Over on the visiting sideline, Bulldogs head coach Mark Fox, ever so slightly, let his head drop.

It was that kind of night for both sides.

On the way to a runaway 82-48 victory, Kentucky went over six minutes without scoring in the first half and still put up 42 points in 20 minutes, averaged 1.36 points per possession —for the non-analytics crowd, that’s outstanding — and led by 18 at the break.

On the way to being routed on the road, Georgia went over 17 minutes without a field goal and ended up shooting 22 percent from the floor. The Bulldogs are not a good shooting team. Tuesday, they were a horrendous shooting team. And Kentucky had something to do with that.

“It was a good effort,” UK coach John Calipari admitted on the eve of his 57th birthday. “One of our better efforts this year.”

The 22 percent was the lowest shooting percentage by an SEC opponent in the Calipari era. The Bulldogs were consistent in their clanging. They made five of 25 shots in the first half, then six of 25 in the second half.

It would be easy to lavish praise on the Kentucky defense. It would also be correct. Since the Cats surrendered that 21-point lead in a losing cause at Tennessee last week, Calipari has concentrated his coaching efforts on his team’s defense. Cal’s teams are traditionally good defensive teams. Not this year. Not until lately, anyway.

It also bears noting, however, that UK’s last two foes arrived in Lexington brandishing impressive defensive numbers of their own. Before its 19-point loss on Saturday, Florida was ninth in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to stats guru Ken Pomeroy. Georgia walked onto the Rupp floor on Tuesday ranked No. 1 in the SEC and sixth in the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to 37.5 percent.

Saturday, Kentucky made 12 of 20 three-pointers and shot 51.7 percent from the floor.

Tuesday, Kentucky made 10 of 21 three-pointers and shot 51.8 percent from the floor.

The numbers remind you of a story Denny Crum likes to tell. Back in the day, before analytics and advanced stats, Crum’s old boss UCLA coach John Wooden commissioned a study to find out which statistic, more often than not, determined the winner of a basketball game. It wasn’t rebounding. Or fewest turnovers. Or most free throws. It was the team with the highest shooting percentage.

Calipari lamented (slightly) postgame that he’d still like to have more of a post presence. And Kentucky was again without Alex Poythress. (“He’s going to be out two weeks,” was all Bill Belichick, er, Calipari would say.) Isaac Humphries wasn’t as effective off the bench as he was Saturday against Florida. Marcus Lee’s two baskets were both dunks off lobs.

Then again, maybe not every box needs to be checked when your guards are locked and loaded. Tyler Ulis is a magician. And Murray made eight of 14 shots, including six of 10 from three. Over the last two games, the Canadian has made 14 of 20 three-point shots. That’s ridiculous.

Now we get to see if Ulis, Murray and the Cats can take that show on the road. Saturday brings a travel date at South Carolina, a trouble spot even when the Gamecocks were not very good. This year, the Gamecocks are good. They proved that last Saturday, shaking off a recent slump to become the first team this year to win at Texas A&M.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” Calipari said.

Over the last two games, however, Kentucky’s made it look pretty easy.

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