Kentucky became the only SEC team with a perfect conference record (7-0) by dismantling the 24th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks by a final of 85-69 Saturday at Rupp.
The Wildcats, led by freshman Malik Monk’s 27 points, shot a season-best 58.3 percent from the field without starter freshman De’Aaron Fox, who left the game earlier with an ankle injury that did not appear to be serious.
It was the first ranked SEC opponent Kentucky faced this season and it could be the last of the regular season. The Gamecocks are not on UK’s regular season schedule again and Florida is the only other ranked SEC team, coming in at number 25 in today’s polls.
I thought the Gators might get edged out of the top 25 after dropping two in a row last week. Glad to see they are still in the mix, but they’ll have to keep winning. Kentucky plays Florida twice in the month of February.
What does this mean for Kentucky? Obviously, it was good to beat the next highest ranked team in the conference. There are 12 remaining games on the Wildcats’ schedule and only one (Saturday vs. Kansas) is guaranteed to be against a ranked foe.
Saturday’s match-up with the Jayhawks as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge will be huge for the Cats’ resume if they can find a way to win.
Regardless, exciting times are on the horizon for this young Kentucky team. Here’s a look at what they’re saying...
Can't really judge SC on this game; one of its best players hurt, 4 others sick. Ky may see Gamecocks again in SEC Tournament.— Big Blue Insider (@bigblueinsider1) January 22, 2017
Gamecocks guard P.J. Dozier did not play against the Wildcats after experiencing pregame back spasms in Lexington. I wouldn’t mind taking on the Gamecocks again, I just hope if its in the SEC Tournament Championship, that the game will count for something with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
"With the the way they pressure and down two guards, really good win." - Coach Cal pic.twitter.com/kqwO5EtZ2P— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 22, 2017
In addition to Fox going out of the game early, Mychal Mulder also missed Saturday’s game due to sickness. Isaiah Briscoe also had an off night, finishing with zero points, four fouls and seven turnovers. So it was necessary for others to step up.
Big shout out to Hawkins, Willis, Humphries and Gabriel...all of whom made big contributions— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) January 22, 2017
You had to be pleased with the way all four of those guys played. In the last “What They’re Saying” post I did, the comments were getting a little heated as to who should get more time at the four spot between Gabriel and Willis. They both played well and I don’t really care which one is better as long as they’re both giving all they can to help the team.
I’d say Kentucky fans are pretty pumped. The cheapest ticket I’ve seen on the secondary market is about $195, and that’s for the nose bleed section.
SEVEN assists for Dominique Hawkins tonight. Without him, Kentucky may not have been able to survive in Fox's absence.— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) January 22, 2017
It was a big game for Hawkins, which is a testament to Kentucky’s depth. The Wildcats will certainly miss having experienced guys like Hawkins and Mulder coming off the bench next season.
On the flip side, Briscoe had SEVEN turnovers and 0 points. Not acceptable, especially with Fox out.— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) January 22, 2017
Again, the Cats are deep, but this was a South Carolina team that was without one of its best players, too. Let’s hope that was Briscoe’s last bad game for awhile, because another performance like that versus Kansas and the Cats are in trouble.
SC coach Frank Martin says Gamecocks had their worst practice of the season yesterday and he kind of saw today's game coming.— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) January 22, 2017
Martin added South Carolina picked the wrong team to have their worst defensive day against.— Jeff Drummond (@JDrumUK) January 22, 2017
I think Frank Martin is a solid coach who has the Gamecocks going in the right direction. Hopefully they can grow from this loss, keep hovering around the top 25, and get a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Yesterday Cal said OK for refs to call all fouls on other team if they’re fouling and not try to even it out. Carolina 26 fouls, UK 16. Hmmm— Darrell Bird (@DarrellBird) January 22, 2017
That was a great point to make by Cal. Did the refs actually listen to him? Who knows, but it certainly would appear so in this tweet. I think SEC officials definitely felt some heat after calling an absurd amount of fouls last Tuesday in Starkville.
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin comes out to do his post-game radio show & the remaining fans here in Rupp Arena give him a nice ovation— Mark Story (@markcstory) January 22, 2017
Treat the BBN with respect and we’ll send it right back to you. Flip us the bird and we’ll give you that back, too.
Calipari on De'Aaron Fox: "It's not swelled. It may be a stinger. Something hit his ankle."— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) January 22, 2017
Let’s just hope he’s 100 percent for Saturday against the Jayhawks. I’m fine with him sitting out Tuesday against a 10-9 Tennessee squad.
Cal told Bam "You're too nice. I'd be strangling these guys who don't throw you the ball if I was you."— KSTV (@KSTV_Sports) January 22, 2017
This is a classic Cal comment but I don’t disagree with his point. Bam was five of six from the field and eight of 12 from the free throw line. His average field goal percentage for the season is .610. Get Bam the ball!
Calipari reiterates on Hamidou Diallo: "He's not in the mix." So there you go. https://t.co/mBiIQcEnFv— Kyle Tucker (@KyleTucker_AJC) January 22, 2017
I’m not sure what to make of this. I wonder if Diallo would be in the mix had Fox’s injury been more serious. Does Cal truly not think Diallo is at a level to compete? I honestly have no idea on this one.
We all know Cal can sometimes be a little hard on ol’ Willis. Glad to see him excited and deservedly so; that dunk was sick.
This is the 6th time in the past 20 seasons that Kentucky has won its 1st 7 conference games pic.twitter.com/ToPwpSwGF2— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 22, 2017
That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but hey, if ESPN wants to suggest that Kentucky is looking like at least an elite eight team, I’ll go out on a limb and agree.
"To be able to have a bench to step up is big in order to win a national championship." - Dominique Hawkins— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 22, 2017
Couldn’t agree more. I pray the Cats can stay healthy and get to March with as deep a talent pool as any.
Tim Sullivan of the Courier-Journal made a case in his column for Calipari to make time for newcomer Hamidou Diallo to get his feet wet this season:
What happens if Fox or Malik Monk twist an ankle or wrench a knee in March? What happens if the backcourt burden falls disproportionately on Isaiah Briscoe and he duplicates his Saturday stinker: zero-points, 7 turnovers?
How is it possible to take your best shot at an NCAA title while leaving potentially lethal bullets in the chamber?
“You never know who’s going to be in foul trouble or injured,” said Dominique Hawkins, the senior guard who played 28 minutes in Fox’s place Saturday. “To be able to have a bench that can step up for you is very important to be able to win the national championship.”
With senior guard Mychal Mulder out with an illness, Kentucky’s backcourt depth was still sufficient Saturday to score their fifth double-digit victory in seven SEC games. Afterward, Calipari joked that he faced a confrontation at home about giving his son Brad more minutes. He described Diallo as a work in progress not yet ready for prime time.
“He’s working hard,” Calipari said. “He’s been here three (or) four days and we have a kid on campus who knows him and he says, ‘Man, look at him.’ He’s getting better. He came here for a reason. He wants to be his best version: ‘How good can I get? How good can I be?’
“What I want him to do is I want him to go after Malik and Isaiah. He’s a really good on-ball defender, like really good. Like go after these guys. Make them better. If they’re not practicing hard, make them look bad.
“But yeah, he’s not in the mix.”
Metz Camfield of CoachCal.com thinks UK will be just fine with who they’ve got, and regardless of who’s healthy, they all need to work on getting Bam Adebayo the ball more, but that involves Bam being more demanding of the ball.
On the basketball court, Adebayo scares opponents, but is too nice to his own teammates.
The 6-10 beast from Little Washington, North Carolina, runs the floor like a guard, can defend the perimeter and has dunked on enough people through the first 19 games to put together a budding poster business.
“Every team is scared of him when they see him I think,” Monk said. “Especially when he comes out to defend guards on the perimeter. Bam is a great player and I’m glad to have him on this team.”
“He’s big. He dunks on people,” Briscoe said of Adebayo. “He’s gotta be mean. That’s just something that he’s gotta do. People respect that and when they see it he scares people. People are scared of that. It’s a good thing he’s on our team.”
Still, the big man leads the Wildcats in field goal percentage (among those with more than five field-goal attempts), but hasn’t taken enough shots to qualify for the category in the national rankings or the SEC standings.
Adebayo is shooting 60 percent from the field, but has attempted just 135 shots this season. He’s put up 10 or more shots in five games this season, and has taken more than 12 shots only once; when he scored a season-high 25 points on 12-of-19 shooting. Over the past six games, Adebayo has missed no more than two shots in any game.
“I told Bam after the game, you’re too nice,” Calipari said. “I said I would strangle a couple of these guys that aren’t throwing you the ball. If I was you, I would. You’re so nice, you don’t say anything. And we’re throwing him the ball, but it’s like it’s forced. It shouldn’t be forced. He’s that good.”
Vols head coach Rick Barnes doesn’t know if Fox will play Tuesday, but he thinks this UK team is special even without their star point guard.
"Well, what makes him go, he's fast, he's quick, he's long, he can create problems with his defense," Barnes said, via 247. "I think any coach loves a guy that's willing to get in the backcourt and work the point guard. And he's got great stamina for a guy that's his size.
"He can shoot it, obviously, but he gets it to the rim. He'll pass it, he'll rebound it and go with it. I'm not sure there's much he can't do."
As much praise as Barnes heaped on Fox, he added that it won't make much of a difference either way if he plays or not.
"With or without him, I think Kentucky is an outstanding team," Barnes said. "John (Calipari) has done a terrific job again, getting these guys to play the way that they should be playing, to be effective."
Even though Tennessee Basketball hasn’t had remotely close to the level of success as UK, you wouldn’t know that based on how competitive this rivalry is, and it’s and many memorable games throughout time, as 247’s Grant Ramey writes:
Jan. 13, 2009: Kentucky 90, No. 24 Tennessee 72
Memorable for all the wrong reasons for Tennessee fans, Kentucky came to Knoxville and beat the 24th-ranked Vols by 18 as Jodie Meeks scored a school-record 54 points. Meeks went 15-for-22 from the field, 10-for-15 from behind the 3-point line and made all 14 of his free-throw attempts. He added eight rebounds, four assists, a steal and a turnover in 39 minutes. Tyler Smith (19), Wayne Chism (18) and Bobby Maze (11) combined to scored 48 points for the Vols, who trailed by four at halftime. The Wildcats, though, shot 56.6 percent (16 of 26) from the field in the second half, outscoring Tennessee 49-35 after the break.
Jan. 13, 1975: Kentucky 88, Tennessee 82
OK, this one didn't happen in Knoxville. And it wasn't a Tennessee win, either. But it's still very much memorable. From Tennessee's game notes provided by the Vols' sports information department:
"As Bernard King walked off the court at Memorial Gym after a deflating 88-82 loss on Jan. 13, 1975, a Kentucky fan flipped a lit cigarette into the Tennessee legend's hair. Outraged, King vowed he would never lose to Kentucky again. He vigorously carried out that promise, finishing his career 5-1 against the Wildcats."
All said, Tuesday has the makings of another SEC thriller that comes down to the final minutes for Kentucky. Let’s just hope they finish the deal like they’ve done in conference play thus far.