John Clay

John Clay: Kentucky basketball has flipped the switch just in time

Johnny Jones knew it would be tough at Rupp

LSU coach Johnny Jones talks about his team's 94-77 loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
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LSU coach Johnny Jones talks about his team's 94-77 loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

Here where basketball is king and it’s time to shine, the good news for Kentucky is that we have mounting evidence that the switch has been flipped and lights are on.

It’s on for Skal Labissiere, the all-but-forgotten freshman center who built on his pop-up performance at Florida on Tuesday by scoring 18 points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking six shots as Kentucky thrashed LSU 94-77 on Saturday.

It’s on for Jamal Murray, the catch-and-release scoring machine of a guard who has learned not just how to play without the basketball but how to excel without the basketball. He had his 10th straight game of 20-or-more points.

It’s on for Tyler Ulis, the 5-foot-9 proclaimed coach on the court and Wooden Award finalist who had a season-high 14 assists on Saturday while directing an offense that tanned the Tigers.

It’s on for Alex Poythress, who celebrated Senior Day by listening to surprise video tributes from his “brothers” and former teammates Karl-Anthony Towns, Aaron Harrison and Kyle Wiltjer, then made six of seven shots on the way to 12 points.

It’s on for Marcus Lee, hopping off the bench to add a double-double to the festivities with 12 points and 10 boards and lob dunk after lob dunk after lob dunk.

29, 17 and 7Skal Labbissiere’s points, rebounds and blocked shots in last two games

“You’ve got to have a confident team going into the tournament,” Coach John Calipari said, before adding: “Now all of a sudden we’ve got an empowered team that’s playing with confidence.”

At precisely the perfect time. In case you haven’t noticed, March is here. Next week the SEC Tournament commences. Selection Sunday is seven days away. The real music is about to start, the Big Dance about to begin.

Admit it, you worried March wouldn’t matter. Sure, this was a pretty good Kentucky basketball team, but it wasn’t a great Kentucky basketball team. It certainly wasn’t the 38-1 team of last year, or the surprise national runner-up of the year before. Heaven knows it wasn’t close to the national title team of 2011-12.

This year’s model sported too many holes, especially that rather noticeable one in the middle. Despite a glittering guard tandem, UK’s frontcourt was a frustrating on-again/off-again proposition, contributing one game, hiding the next.

Why just a week ago down in Nashville, it was as if all Cats 6-5 and over missed the bus to Memorial Gym. It’s hard to win that way. Kentucky didn’t. Vanderbilt 74, Kentucky 62.

Then Calipari went “tweaking” again. From his bag of tricks came an oldie but a goodie — a way to hit the reset button. The message was more psychological than strategic. Tear off the rear-view mirror. It’s not where we’ve been; it’s where we’re going. Confidence is the fuel to get us there.

From out of the darkness stepped Labissiere. The freshman, so disappointing for so much of the season, wasn’t just a surprise starter in the Sunshine State, he was a major contributor. Fifteen minutes brought 11 points and eight rebounds.

More important, Saturday showed Florida was no fluke. Even with Ben Simmons in the building, there were stretches when you thought maybe Rivals was right all along tabbing Labissiere the nation’s No. 1 prospect. There were stretches when Skal was the best big man on the floor.

It’s difficult to underestimate the difference he makes. Labissiere’s silky-smooth jumper from those long arms can be an unstoppable weapon. Labissiere made eight of 10 shots Saturday. His offensive success has carried over to the defensive end, where the once “Shy Skal” is now “Skal the Swatter.” Shooters beware.

“When he’s blocking shots like that, he’s a rim protector,” Poythress said. “That’s what we had last year.”

This isn’t last year, of course. This isn’t ninth-banner-or-bust. On the other hand, most experts agree this is a wide-open year. There is not a dominant team, just several good ones hoping to be “the one” that gets hot at the right time. Kentucky could be one of those teams.

“If there’s 15 teams better than us,” said Calipari on Saturday, “then I’ve got to see them.”

All of a sudden, the light is bright.

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