Over the past few weeks, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like a shell of the team we had been used to in the months preceding January. The offense wasn't as explosive, the defense was porous, the team seemed to lack toughness, and the ‘Cats were turnover prone.
After losing three games in a row, John Calipari stated that the team needed a "reboot" in order to get back to where they were pre-January. The first game AR (after reboot) wasn't encouraging as UK let a really bad LSU team climb back into the game after leading by double digits.
The Wildcats still won, but by only seven points at home. Cal was dismayed in his press conference. He called specific players to the carpet, threatened playing time, and vowed to make corrections starting with a three-hour practice the following day.
The next game was at Alabama. The Crimson Tide were coming off a big win on the road at South Carolina. Kentucky led for the entire game, but they looked out of sync on offense. The defense and the rebounding were greatly improved, but the ‘Cats let the Tide cut an 18 point deficit to six points before UK won by nine. They looked improved, but there were still questions.
Fast forward to Tuesday night against a Tennessee team that defeated the Wildcats back in January 82-80. Kentucky looked like the team of old as they dismantled the Vols by 25 points.
So what looked different?
De'Aaron Fox Looked Comfortable and Healthy
De'Aaron Fox has been battling an ankle injury on top of an illness. The ankle caused him to miss half a game. He played the next game against Tennessee but lacked his usual explosiveness. He missed the game against Georgia where UK had to battle to win in over time. He played the next game against Florida, but again he didn't look like his usual self.
It finally looks as if Fox is back to normal. He played a fantastic game scoring 13 points, dishing out six assists and had zero turnovers. The team as a whole had 17 assists compared to only seven turnovers, which was their best effort in weeks.
With Fox back in control of the offense and playing mistake free basketball, this team once again looked at it's best.
Shooting Opened Up the Offense
Derek Willis built on the confidence of knocking down a game clinching shot at Alabama by having his best game of the season against the Vols. The senior forward shot lights out in the first half, going 4-4 from long range. Malik Monk also chipped in four threes, and Dominique Hawkins had two from beyond the arch.
When Kentucky shoots like that, they are almost impossible to guard and impossible to beat. If Willis plays like he did going forward, the ‘Cats become one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
The Vets Balled Out
I already mentioned Derek Willis and his 16 points. He also played a season-high in minutes. Dominique Hawkins was also a big factor, and he played a season-high in minutes as Isaiah Briscoe was in foul trouble for much of the game.
Both players are four-year veterans and were expected to have big seasons. Both Hawk and Willis have been playing more minutes lately and have been contributing on offense, defense, and by rebounding the basketball. They may not be as talented as some of the other players, but their leadership and play will motivate their teammates.
John Calipari, who has been stingy with his praise of Hawkins and especially Willis, was glowing in his comments about them after the game on Tuesday night.
Malik Monk grabbed a season-high eight rebounds last night to go along with his 20 points. Monk could, if he wanted, be a double-double threat every night. Rebounding is all effort. Briscoe is one of the shorter players on the court, but he gets double-figure rebounds in almost every game.
Bam Adebayo is also making it an emphasis to rebound the basketball. He grabbed 12 boards last night, and John Calipari was thrilled. He told Bam that he should be getting 12 to 15 rebounds per game and he's exactly right. With his size and how hard he plays, there is no excuse for him not to average a double-double.
The Offense Looked Free
The most confusing aspect of the recent slump was the stagnant offense. UK had one of the most efficient and potent offenses in the country and that all went away. One of the reasons was that Calipari was too controlling on the sideline. He implored them to get the ball to Bam on every possession, and that took away from what the team does best which is dictating the offense according to what the guards see.
In response, Calipari is taking a step back in terms of in-game coaching. He is letting Kenny Payne handle much of the offense while letting his players simply make plays. The team looked much more focused, the passing was as crisp as I've ever seen, if the ball did go in to Bam he passed it out if he was double teamed, and the ‘Cats racked up 17 assists.
The free-wheeling Wildcats were back for one night and if they combine that with a renewed effort on...
Then, the Final Four is once again a real possibility. Cal, like he did with Payne, is letting Tony Barbee take the controls on the defensive side of the ball. The guards are again getting in the grills of opposing players and the defensive bigs, particularly Bam and Wenyen Gabriel, are rotating and blocking shots around the rim.
For two straight games, UK has limited points in the paint which has been a point of weakness in during the recent slump. UK dominated Tennessee in points in the paint and did against Alabama as well.
Robert Hubbs destroyed Kentucky in their first meeting by scoring 25 points and getting to the paint whenever he wanted. Tuesday night, he was held to only seven points. UK is shutting down the inside.
I haven't been this encouraged about Kentucky basketball since they beat the daylights out of South Carolina in Rupp Arena weeks ago. Slowly but surely this team is turning it on. After the game last night, Cal stated that this is just the beginning of the reboot, there will be more to come.
This is how the team needs to be playing at this time of the season for us to feel good about their chances in March. They have a tough road game on Saturday against Georgia. If Kentucky wins by a large margin and dominates like they did against the Vols, then it's game on for the rest of the season.