The Kentucky Wildcats opened SEC play Saturday night as the Ole Miss Rebels came into Rupp Arena hungry for an upset.
The two conference foes entered this matchup with equal 10-2 records, but UK has had far more impressive wins to this point, whereas the Rebs needed a signature to validate their quality start. After the way most of this same Ole Miss squad nearly upset last year's dominant UK team, most expected this game to be a dogfight throughout.
Not so. UK had its best first-half of the season and showed flashes of the dominant team we all thought they could become en route to an 83-61 victory.
Here is a look at our quick takeaways from the game.
Ulis Dominates Again
The Cats haven't looked as dominant as we expected them to be, especially during losses to Ohio State and UCLA. While many issues have factored into that, Tyler Ulis' hyperextended elbow suffered vs South Florida had a bigger effect on that than we probably realized.
Ulis was averaging 18 points on 45.6% shooting in his previous three games prior to the injury, but that dipped to 10.25 points on a putrid 24% shooting. That's a big reason why UK went 2-2 in said games as he was hurting the Cats about as much as he was helping on the offensive end.
But against Louisville, Ulis had his best game of the season with 21 points on 58.3% shooting, and that continued against Ole Miss with 20 points on 61.5% shooting to go with a career-high 10 assists.
Adding to that, Ulis was a force on defense with a career-high six steals and was a pest against Ole Miss' guards. He was also a big reason why Rebels star Stefan Moody didn't get going until the game was out of reach as he had just four shot attempts in the first half.
Ulis was zoned in on both ends of the floor and was easily the best player on the floor this night. He also became the first UK player since John Wall to get a 20-point, 10-assist game.
Best Start of Season
There's no question this was the best opening to a game Kentucky has had this season, and it's really not even close. Not even against the likes of Wright State, Boston U, Albany, or South Florida did the Cats dominate the way they did the first half like they did in this one.
And frankly, Ole Miss is better than all of those teams and may even be the third or fourth best UK has played in what was a tough nonconference schedule, but the Cats made sure to put the Rebels away early with a 46-22 first-half demolition, their biggest lead at halftime this season.
Everything was working, whether it was Skal on the boards, Briscoe at the free-throw line, to the Cats hitting three-pointers, this was the kind of dominance we all dreamed of seeing these Cats showcase before the season.
To this point, they'd mostly been just dreams, but for that first half, they became a reality. The 22-point win was their second-biggest win of the season, and may have been their most impressive given Ole Miss is a pretty good team that UK just destroyed in nearly every facet.
Roles Reversed for Lee and Skal
Coming into the season, everyone expected Skal Labissiere to be the Cats' best big man and maybe even overall player, whereas Marcus Lee was viewed as someone who could come in and give UK some nice energy minutes off the bench, but nothing more.
To this point, the roles have been a bit revered as Lee is the one shining while Skal is being relegated to limited minutes off the bench. Take out the UCLA game in which Lee was injured, and he's averaging 11.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and three blocks per game.
Against the Rebels, that continued to a degree, but with Skal finally actually giving the Cats something off the bench. He rebounded well and showed he could hold his own in the paint against a decent Rebels frontcourt. Lee was far more productive on both ends of the floor, and frankly, has been giving the Cats what they'd hoped to get from Skal.
Marcus Lee cleaning up. #BBN https://t.co/wPH7TBCtI3— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 3, 2016
Lee finished this game with 13 points, eight boards and two blocks while Skal chipped in nine points and three boards before fouling out in the second half. There's no question Lee is the better player right now and is giving UK a ton on both ends of the court, but this was a nice game for Skal as he continues to find his way.
GO AWAY INJURIES
Seriously, what the heck?
I can't remember a UK team suffering so many injuries within the first 13 games the way this team has, and it only got worse this week. Prior to facing Ole Miss, Lee suffered a face injury after catching an elbow from Isaac Humphries in practice and is now wearing a protective mask.
Marcus Lee wearing guard over eyes and nose as he shoots informally pic.twitter.com/63QXvZH7GL— Jerry Tipton (@JerryTipton) January 2, 2016
Marcus Lee can see just fine through that protective face mask. pic.twitter.com/gMn9yBx4ik— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 3, 2016
The good news is it didn't affect him against the Rebels, but UK would suffer a more serious injury during the game. It came when Dominique Hawkins suffered a scary ankle injury in the second half that led to him missing the rest of the game, and it may cost him significant time as severe as it looked.