In addition to my column, here are three takeaways from Kentucky’s 95-75 win over Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday:
1. Don’t forget Wenyen Gabriel.
Yes, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (10-of-12 field goals, 27 points) and Hamidou Diallo (22 points, eight rebounds) headed the stat sheet on Saturday, but don’t overlook the continuing contributions of the 6-foot-9 sophomore from South Sudan.
Gabriel finished with 16 points and 12 rebounds, hitting five of 11 shots, including three-of-five three pointers. Of his dozen rebounds, five came on the offensive end where UK ended up with an offensive rebound percentage of .448 — 13 offensive rebounds out of 29 opportunities.
This comes on the heels of Gabriel’s showing at last week’s SEC Tournament, in which he went a ridiculous seven-for-seven form three-point range for 23 points in the Cats’ 86-63 bashing of Alabama in the semifinals. He followed that with a 12-point, six-rebound, three-steal game in UK’s 77-72 win over Tennessee for the tourney title.
With Jarred Vanderbilt missing the post-season (so far) with an ankle injury, Gabriel has more than done his share, contributing three of his best games of the season.
“My comment to the players after the game,” said UK coach John Calipari after Saturday’s game, “was the reason this has been the most rewarding season I’ve had in over 30, or however many I’ve done this, is because of what’s happening for Wenyen, what’s happening for Hami.”
2. Kentucky continues to excel at defensive end.
So what’s the biggest turnaround for this Kentucky team since that four-game losing streak a month ago? Improved offense led to the Cats responding with a four-game win streak. After an 80-67 loss at Florida in the regular season finale, however, Kentucky’s defense has turned downright nasty.
Starting with the SEC Tournament, here are the shooting percentages of Kentucky’s opponents — 26.1 percent for Georgia; 37.9 percent for Alabama; 37.1 percent for Tennessee; 39.3 percent for Davidson; 38.8 percent for Buffalo.
In its 89-68 shocker over No. 4 seed Arizona on Thursday, Buffalo sank 15 of 30 three-point attempts for 50 percent. Against Kentucky’s size and length, however, Buffalo was just seven-of-31 from three for 22.6 percent. Playing catch-up, the Bulls attempted 14 three-pointers in the second half. They made two.
“I think we’re playing really good defense right now,” said freshman forward PJ Washington. “We’re really locked-in right now.”
Consider this: Against Davidson, UK went zero-for-six from three-point range, snapping the school’s streak of 1,047 consecutive games with a made three-pointer. The Cats won anyway. Against Buffalo, UK got just eight points from Kevin Knox, who had scored 25 against Davidson. Knox picked up three fouls in the first half and ended up four-of-10 from the floor, missing all three of his three-point attempts. Thee Cats won anyway.
3. The window of opportunity is open.
As I wrote after No. 1 seed Virginia’s stunning loss to No. 16 seed UMBC on Friday night, the South Region has opened up for No. 5 seed Kentucky, which entered Saturday’s play the highest-seeded team left in the top half of the South Region bracket.
Nothing against No. 9 seed Kansas State or UMBC. The two teams play Sunday for a trip to Atlanta, but the winner figures to be an underdog against Kentucky on Thursday night.
Without a doubt, the Cats are playing their best basketball at the time when your best basketball is needed. They have won eight of their last nine games by playing consistent, tough basketball.
That doesn’t guarantee a spot in next Saturday’s South Region final, but you have to like Kentucky’s chances heading to Catlanta.