When the Kentucky Wildcats began NCAA Tournament play, we knew everyone on the team needed to step up to help offset the loss of PJ Washington.
However, few were expected Jemarl Baker to aid tho efforts, but the redshirt freshman quietly had one of his best games of the season in Thursday’s win over Abilene Christian.
Baker played a career-high 24 minutes and scored 7 points, grabbed 1 rebound, and dished out 1 assist. Kentucky fans, Calipari, and Baker alike were all excited to see Baker knock down a three-point shot to boot.
But Baker also played solid defense, which doesn’t show up in the box score other than one steal. He guarded on the perimeter, in the post on a few possessions, and he closed out tight on shooters at the three-point line. Baker’s reputation is that of a shooter, but he has underrated athleticism and defensive ability.
While not an eyebrow-raising game, it was a valuable performance by Baker. He didn’t make any headlines, but he did his job to help Kentucky win the game. And with PJ out vs. Wofford, Calipari will yet again use Baker for an increased role.
This role, while not full of glamor and glory, is a familiar role to Kentucky. It’s a similar role to what Dominique Hawkins played in 2014, when Kentucky beat both Louisville and Michigan to reach the Final Four.
In the 2014 NCAA Tournament against Louisville in the Sweet 16 matchup, Hawkins played 15 important minutes off the bench. Kentucky needed these 15 minutes from Hawkins - full of energy and hustle - to pull out a 5-point victory over the Cardinals.
Hawkins entered the game quickly in the 1st half. His task: make life miserable for Russ Smith, who Kentucky’s starters simply couldn’t guard. Calipari used Hawkins to guard Smith in a tough, physical, intense manner.
The then-freshman guard was draped all over Smith, making him work extra hard on the offensive end. Hawkins didn’t score or grab a single rebound while committing three fouls, but he brought all the intangibles that Calipari needed.
Only 15 seconds into the 2nd half, Calipari brought Hawkins into the game to replace a struggling James Young. Hawkins’ task remained the same: lock down Smith, and disrupt Louisville’s offensive flow.
The Cats got defensive stops in 4 of the first 5 possessions that Hawkins played. Louisville then went on a 6-0 run with Hawkins on the bench, and yep, Calipari put Hawkins back in.
Then with 5 minutes left and down 7 points, Hawkins got back in the game. When Hawkins checked out, Kentucky had already tied the game.
Kentucky does not win that game without Hawkins off the bench.
In the 2014 Elite Eight matchup with Michigan, Hawkins played 11 important minutes off the bench, having yet another valuable game. Again, he didn’t scored, didn’t record a rebound, didn’t record a single assist or steal.
Hawkins task: Lock down Michigan’s Nick Stauskas and Spike Albrecht, who both got off to a great starts against the Wildcats in this game. Hawkins harassed Albrecht all the way up the floor, he chased Stauskas off screens and off the three-point line, and he sprinted the floor on both ends in transition.
When Kentucky found themselves down 10 in the 1st half, it was Stauskas doing the damage. Hawkins enters the game, takes pride in his defensive assignment on Michigan’s scorer, and locks him down - allowing UK to come back and tie the game at halftime.
When Aaron Harrison picked up his 3rd foul 2 minutes into the 2nd half, Calipari went right back to Hawkins - who face-guarded Stauskas all over the floor.
Again, Kentucky does not win this game without Hawkins.
Baker is an underrated defender, but that’s because he can be such a great shooter. Hawkins was a great defender because everyone knew that was his game. Baker has the potential to become a lockdown defender, but he can also help Kentucky with his shot.
Wofford, who made 14 three-point shots against Seton Hall, will be a tough challenge for Kentucky’s defense, especially without PJ.
Baker can help chase Wofford shooters off the three-point line. He can switch on screens and dribble handoffs. He can grab defensive rebounds, sprint back in transition (his 10.24-second lane agility time at UK’s pro ranked among the top-20 all-time in ESPN’s database, while he also led the team in ¾-court sprint times), and he can contain the dribble.
Like 2014 needed Dominique Hawkins, 2019 needs Jemarl Baker in order to win this game vs Wofford.