Sidelines with John Clay

So what changed for Kentucky basketball?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, center, grabs a loose ball and leads a fast break in the second half. The University of Kentucky hosted the University of Georgia, Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2016 at Rupp Arena in Lexington .
Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, center, grabs a loose ball and leads a fast break in the second half. The University of Kentucky hosted the University of Georgia, Tuesday, Feb. 09, 2016 at Rupp Arena in Lexington . Lexington Herald-Leader

Turns out, John Calipari worked himself into a tizzy for no good reason. The Kentucky coach said he went back and watched the tape of his team’s two games with Georgia last year. In the first, UK struggled to win 69-58 in Lexington. In the second, the Cats survived – “We had no business winning that game at Georgia,” he said – 72-64 in Athens.

“I was scared to death all day after watching those two games,” Calipari said.

To be fair, I felt the same way. Georgia was playing well, having beaten South Carolina 69-56 and Auburn 65-55 its last two games. And Georgia coach Mark Fox appeared to know how to play Kentucky. His game plan last season down in Athens was considered a blueprint of how to beat, or at least have a chance to beat, a Kentucky team that would win 38 straight games before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four.

Ah, turned out, Calipari had little reason to worry. Kentucky wasn’t just good on Tuesday night, whipping the Bulldogs 82-48, the Cats were very good at both ends of the floor. UK shot 51.8 percent. Georgia, which went over 17 minutes without making a field goal, shot 22 percent.

Tuesday’s performance came on the heels of an impressive 80-61 win over Florida on Saturday. And that was a Florida team that had taken part a Top 10 team, West Virginia, 88-71, just a week before.

So what changed? It was just a week ago that the Cats blew that 21-point first-half lead at Tennessee. Up 34-13 with five minutes to go in the first half, they let it all go and then some, losing 84-77 to a mediocre Tennessee team. Alarms went off all over the Commonwealth that night.

Getting back home surely helped. Kentucky has now won 34 straight at Rupp. This young team is clearly more comfortable in front of the home crowd. It plays looser, with more confidence. If the last two games are evidence, the ball falls through the nets a little easier at home.

The head coach points to the defensive end. Tennessee scored 71 points over the final 25 minutes at Thompson-Boling. Before that, in the 90-84 overtime loss at Kansas, Calipari said his team’s defense the second half was awful. Since returning from Knoxville, the coach has concentrated on stopping people.

It has worked. To be fair, neither Florida nor Georgia is the Golden State Warriors. Both have been known to struggle to put the ball in the basket. Still, the way Calipari’s club was able to smother both teams was impressive.

Saturday, it’s back to the road, which hasn’t been all that kind of Calipari’s club, especially South Carolina. Cal is just 3-2 in Columbia since coming to Kentucky. Two years ago, with a team that ended up in the NCAA title game, the coach got tossed in what turned out to be a 72-67 South Carolina win.

Back then, the Gamecocks stunk. Now, they are good. Frank Martin appears to have turned it around. In fact, this is a big week for the Gamecocks. They play league-leader LSU on Wednesday night (7 p.m. on ESPN2) before UK comes calling on Saturday.

Kentucky men’s basketball next five games

Feb. 13 at South Carolina (12:00/ESPN)

Feb. 18 Tennessee (7:00/ESPN)

Feb. 20 at Texas A&M (6:30/ESPN)

Feb. 23 Alabama (7:00/ESPN)

Feb. 27 at Vanderbilt (4:00/CBS)

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