They also entered the Big Dance with a defense ranked in the 70s, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better defensive performance than what the Cats did to Stony Brook en route to an 85-57 win. It was as impressive of a game as UK has had this season, not to mention one of the best games defensively Kentucky has had under John Calipari.
Here's a look at our takeaways from the win.
Skal Starts and Thrives
As the regular season wore on, it appeared Skal Labissiere was finally overcoming his freshman wall and becoming the dynamic forward UK expected him to be. He finished with 29 combined points in the final two regular-season games, but averaged just 3.7 points in the SEC Tournament.
But Skal still got the start against Stony Brook and responded well. He was solid at times and shaky at others. He had what looked like two wide-open dunks early that was blocked by Jameel Warney, but Skal returned the favor with two blocks on one possession.
Kentucky held Stony Brook to 19 points in the first half as they lead by 14. https://t.co/uae3R4Mfyf— ThePostGame.com (@ThePostGame) March 18, 2016
Within the first seven minutes, Skal had four points, two boards and four blocks. He was all over the paint on defense and hit some pretty jumpers on offense. It was a good thing Skal was active early as Marcus Lee picked up two quick fouls and missed much of the first half.
That paved the way for Skal to have a big game on defense and be a force in the paint.
UK players with 6 blocks in an NCAA Tournament game: Nazr Mohammed, Jamaal Magloire, Anthony Davis, Skal Labissiere— Corey Price (@coreyp08) March 18, 2016
Skal finished the game with 12 points, four boards and six blocks, which is exactly the kind of line he needs to keep putting up for UK to make a deep run.
Defense Defense Defense
The Cats' offense was woefully woeful early as the defense was surprisingly the strong point in the first half. Their defense struggled mightily at times during the SEC Tournament, and it was one of the biggest things Cal said UK needed to improve on to make a deep tourney run. It was clear early vs Stony Brook that UK had spent much of the past week working on defense as the Cats were everywhere defensively to open the game.
It was mostly just playing tighter defense and boxing out better, but some of their improved defense was thanks to frequent double-teams on Warney, which led to contested misses as he missed five of his first six shots. The Seawolves also missed 24 of their first 27 shots and had just 10 points through the first 13 minutes. Stony Brook at one point missed 14 straight shots as everything was contested and/or shots were taken off balance.
It's good the defense was so great because the offense was just horrendous.
Commented to Mike and Tom in Pre-Game that UK missed more shots in warmups than I could remember all year...has extended into game as well— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) March 18, 2016
Perhaps Calipari took a gamble and focused heavily on defense this week hoping his Cats' blazing-hot offense would still be efficient against Stony Brook. Whatever happened, UK led 33-19 at halftime and had nine blocks while holding Stony Brook to 7-of-37 shooting and 0-of-5 from deep.
The Cats did just enough on offense (11-of-34 shooting and 6 assists vs 2 turnovers) to take a 33-19 lead, the Seawolves' largest deficit of the season. The offense kicked into gear in the second half while the defense continued to dominate. Stony Brook had just 35 points at the 9:40 mark as the Cats were relentless on that side of the court all night.
If UK keeps playing D like this and gets close to what they were doing offensively coming into the tourney, this team can win it all.
Going off the above statement...
I'm pretty sure UK has a good record when Cal smiles/laughs in a game like that, maybe having never lost. Let's hope he's smiling for five more games.