Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over Utah

In addition to my column on John Calipari urging Rick Pitino to return to Rupp Arena, three takeaways from Kentucky’s 88-61 win over Utah on Saturday night:

1. Everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket

This was Kentucky’s best shooting game of the season. The Cats shot a season-high 58.6 percent, their highest percentage since UK shot 64.3 percent in beating Alabama in last year’s SEC Tournament. It was the Cats’ fourth-highest percentage since the 2014-15 season.

Three-point shooting had much to do with that. Kentucky was 12-of-21 from three-point range for 57.1 percent. That was also the highest percentage since that SEC Tourney win over Alabama when the Cats were 12-of-18 for 66.7 percent beyond the arc. In games in which UK took 20-or-more threes, Saturday was the highest percentage since March 11, 2016 when the Cats made 13 of 22 threes (59.1 percent) on the way to another win over Alabama in the conference tournament.

So UK’s Points Per Possession number was a season-high 1.404. That topped the 1.367 against North Dakota on Nov. 14. The 1.404 is the highest by Kentucky since the Cats posted a 1.447 in beating Georgia on March 12, 2016 in the SEC Tournament.

2. Keldon Johnson could be the go-to perimeter guy

When the freshman is locked in on what he’s doing -- “He loses focus sometimes,” John Calipari said Saturday -- Johnson is such a smooth, effective player to watch whether he’s taking the ball to the rim or making the outside shot. Saturday, a focused Johnson was sinking outside shot.

Johnson went eight-of-nine from the floor, including seven-of-eight from three-point range. He drained his first five triples on the way to scoring 15 of Kentucky’s first 28 points. His bid at a sixth straight triple rimmed out from the left corner. It was his only miss of the night.

The 24 points did not top Johnson’s 27-point effort against Tennessee State the night after Thanksgiving, but this was his best all-around game. (The Virginia native was seven-of-15 from the floor against TSU.) Though everyone remembers his midcourt shot that beat the buzzer and propelled UK-Seton Hall into overtime last Saturday, Johnson failed to score in the game’s first half. Remember, that was the same half the Cats went 10 minutes without a field goal.

3. Next up, North Carolina

Now it’s on to Chicago where Calipari’s club matches up with North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic at the United Center. And North Carolina is  coming off its best game of the season.

With Cameron Johnson scoring 25 points and Luke Maye chipping in 20 points and 13 rebounds, North Carolina outran No. 4 Gonzaga 103-90 on Saturday in Chapel Hill. That’s the same Gonzaga that knocked off Duke in the finals of the Maui Classic.

Now 8-2 on the season, Carolina shot 54.7 percent from the floor, including a sizzling 13-of-25 from three-point range for 52 percent. Johnson was six-of-eight from downtown. And, oh yeah, North Carolina went 20-of-25 from the foul line for 80 percent.

Head coach Roy Williams was one unhappy camper when Carolina was cuffed 84-67 at Michigan on Nov. 28 in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. Since then, however, UNC has whipped UNC Wilmington by 28 and Gonzaga by 13. The Heels will be Kentucky’s toughest test since the season-opener against Duke.

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