Yesterday, the Kentucky Wildcats shook off the shackles of playing down to the level of their competition and rode a powerful defensive effort to an overwhelming victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks in Rupp Arena. This was a game in which Kentucky looked very much like the team that dominated Kansas, North Carolina and UCLA in the non-conference, rather than the team that was taken to the brink by Ole Miss, Texas A&M and LSU.
I want to praise South Carolina, but they honestly did not play well. The Gamecocks just weren’t at their best. They couldn’t make the occasional open shot Kentucky’s defense yielded and weren’t able to match Kentucky’s intensity on either end of the court. As a result, Kentucky got up big early and kept escalating the lead. I expect the Gamecocks will be much more competitive next season, or maybe even later in this one. But they have to have better efforts from everybody, and for whatever reason, it just wasn’t forthcoming in this game.
For Kentucky, this was a much-needed return to dominance, and while I understand that South Carolina this season is not exactly an NCAA Tournament team, sometimes you just need a win like this to "clear the pipes," as it were. I’m not sure if that’s how the Wildcats feel about it, but I know that a comfortable victory was welcome to my cardiovascular system, which has been sorely tested of late.
South Carolina box
You can’t be displeased with Kentucky’s shooting from anyplace on the floor. I think they are capable of better than 36% from three, and 75% from the line, but 55% from 2 is solid.
63% assists is sharing the ball. We have seen this all year long.
75% defensive rebounding is good, especially against South Carolina, who is a pretty good rebounding team.
58% offensive rebounding is flat-out great against almost anybody.
17% blocks is nice to see again. It seems to me that when Kentucky blocks 15%+ shots, they usually play well. I know they did in the LSU game also, but that game, LSU just played extremely well.
21% turnovers is not good. USC is good at forcing them, but this is just no good. We have to d better than this.
UK’s efficiency was lower than I thought, but still really good at 1.22 points/possession.
Holding a team to 0.68 points/possession is fantastic defense.
Wilie Cauley-Stein get the game ball. Not only did he lead the team in scoring, but he hit not one but two very nice face-up jumpshots that looked great. If he can add that dimension to his game consistently, it’s going to put that much more pressure on UK’s opponents, and makes a zone defense even tougher to play against Kentucky. He also had 7 rebounds and 2 steals.
Andrew Harrison had another nice game. He wasn’t that efficient, but he did a lot of good things out there and deserved to lead the team in minutes played. Six assists and 3 turnovers is fine for him.
Aaron Harrison was very efficient, although he didn’t shoot it great from the arc. He also had two assists, and played exactly the way he needs to.
Trey Lyles had his best game since his return. He was his usual efficient self. He could’ve rebounded a little better.
Karl-Anthony Towns played fine, but not quite up to his recent standard. He made all but one of his shots, but had only 4 rebounds. He did have a block.
Tyler Ulis was just fine, although his shooting eye is still off. He had 3 assists against only 1 turnover.
Dakari Johnson gets the honorable mention for the game ball. He could’ve shot better from the floor at only 3-7, but he made all four of his free throws and had 13 rebounds, a couple of blocks, and an assist. His four turnovers were a team high and the biggest reason why he didn’t at least get a piece of the game ball.
Devin Booker played fine. He’s still having trouble hitting off the bounce, but he’s deadly off the catch.
Marcus Lee played a great game, and he got quite a few minutes as a result. He wound up with 4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists 2 blocks and no turnovers. Impressive.
Dominque Hawkins continues making threes. I love his confidence lately.
Derek Willis came in and got an assist and had a turnover. E.J. Floreal also logged a couple of minutes.
Tying it all up
There’s not a lot bad to say about this game except for the turnovers and maybe too many missed layups. But really, those are looking deep for nits to pick. Kentucky’s defensive and offensive intensity was excellent, even if it was against a foe who was weaker than them an not even at their best. But it felt like Kentucky returned to the standard they had set earlier this season.
So let’s look for a minute at what lies ahead. At this point, I think it’s okay to begin talking about an undefeated regular season and even an undefeated season in general. Kentucky is a prohibitive favorite in every remaining game, via KenPom.com:
Also, based on cumulative probabilities, Kentucky is now 65.4% to go undefeated in the regular season. That will kick up to close to 70% if UK manages to go down to Tennessee and win. So it is no longer useful to pretend like an undefeated regular season is unlikely — in fact, the odds say that it is more likely than not.
Kentucky can still stumble, of course, and may in fact do so. Tennessee may be a long-shot to win, but they are a legitimate rival and a much more athletic team than many believe. Georgia will be a tough out in Athens, and Arkansas has the kind of athletes it takes to hand Kentucky a home loss. But we’ll have to wait and see.
On Tuesday, it’s the Tennessee Volunteers in what will no doubt be a sold-out Thompson Boling Arena in Knoxville. I suspect there will be a good bit of blue in there knowing how the Big Blue Nation travels, but it will be a big, hostile crowd. It should be fun.