In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 82-80 win at Auburn:
1. Kentucky has morphed into road warriors.
We might not have imagined that considering the way John Calipari’s Cats were absolutely clocked by Duke on a neutral floor in November. Or the way the Cats lost to a so-so Seton Hall in overtime in Madison Square Garden in December. Or the way the Cats came up on the short end of a 77-75 score at Alabama in the SEC opener two weeks ago.
With the victory here at Auburn Arena, UK is now 3-1 in true road games. The Cats have wins over Louisville, Georgia and now 14th-ranked Auburn to go with that loss to the Crimson Tide. The victory at Louisville was impressive for the way Kentucky methodically bettered a Chris Mack team that trounced North Carolina in Chapel Hill just last week. The win at Georgia was impressive for the way the Cats showed their superiority over Tom Crean’s rebuilding Bulldogs with a 20-point victory.
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Saturday’s win was impressive in the way that Kentucky built a 17-point lead over Bruce Pearl’s Tigers, and in the way the Cats managed to pull out the victory despite losing that lead. Tyler Herro made two huge free throws with 24 seconds left to make it 81-80 Kentucky. And when a driving Jared Harper missed a shot off the glass with four seconds left, the Cats had pocketed a huge road win.
“We may be playing better on the road than at home,” Calipari said afterward.
We should say something here about the Auburn atmosphere. Auburn Arena seats just 9,121, but Pearl has done what he does best. He’s put people in the seats. Loud, enthusiastic people who now care about basketball. As I was trying to make my way along with the crowd down the stairs from our press row seats to the entrance area after the game, a woman next me was telling a friend, “When they got so far behind, my husband went and sat in the car he was so mad.”
Who would have thought that about Auburn basketball?
2. Keldon Johnson goes from zero to hero.
At Georgia, the freshman did not score a point. Not a single point. And afterward Calipari seemed to relish that the team’s leading scorer put up a goose egg and the Cats still beat Georgia by 20 points. On Friday, at his day-before media opportunity, Calipari said he knew Johnson was good. He said everyone else knew that, too. No one inside the UK locker room was making a big deal about it.
When Johnson got off to a slow start Saturday, however, Ashton Hagans made a big deal of it. Hagans committed a turnover by throwing a pass to Johnson on the wing that sailed out of bounds because Johnson wasn’t looking. Hagans wasnt happy. And he let Johnson know about it. Keldon gestured back, but then he responded. The 6-foot-6 freshman ended up with 20 points, making seven of 11 shots, including two of five from three-point land.
Pearl pointed to the size advantage that Johnson and 6-5 teammate Tyler Herro enjoyed over the Auburn goes. And the Cats played to their strength. Herro was also a hero, scoring 20 points, including those big free throws at the end. In fact, Herro said he wasn’t nervous. He said he knew he would make them, and he did.
Back to Johnson. Asked about what he thought of being told by his teammates to pick it up, Keldon said he had no problem with that whatsoever. “We have each other’s backs,” he said. And here’s what Calipari liked: “He was calling for the ball,” said the UK coach.
3. One down, two to go.
I wrote this week that we’d find out a lot about this Kentucky team in this three-game stretch — Saturday at Auburn; Tuesday at home against Mississippi State and next Saturday at home against Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. All three are ranked teams. And Kentucky passed the first and possibly most difficult test of the three, winning at a place where it had lost its previous two visits.
Now comes Mississippi State. As I write this, the Bulldogs are off to a big early lead at Vanderbilt. After an 0-2 league start, Ben Howland’s team got its first SEC win by beating Florida in Starkville. Howland has a terrific guard in Quinndary Weatherspoon and a pretty good power foward in Aric Holman, the 6-10 Owensboro native averaging 12 points and eight rebounds per game. MSU will be hard to handle, even with the Tuesday game being at Rupp.
Kansas is still trying to adjust to the loss of center Udoka Azubuike of the season to a torn ligament in his hand. Bill Self’s team was upset Saturday at West Virginia by a Bob Huggins team that was 0-5 in the Big 12. By the time the Jayhawks get to Lexington they will either be reeling or ready to prove they are still a viable national title contender by beating a Kentucky team that should be in the top 10 come Monday’s poll.