Before the ball was tossed into the air on Saturday evening in Gainesville, Kentucky had already won. They captured the attention of the Big Blue Nation before one shot was taken.
In the midst of more nationwide chaos stemming from the murderous riot that took place at the United States Capitol Building last Wednesday afternoon, numerous teams made their feelings known within their media availabilities and prior to tip-off for the National Anthem.
The Cats, who clobbered Florida for their third straight win by 18 points, took a knee as a team for the anthem, following in the footsteps of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and numerous other figures and teams throughout sports over the last handful of years. They took a knee and then proceeded to take Florida’s lunch money in their most impressive performance of the season before a key showdown back home against Alabama on Tuesday night.
Not only was the team-wide stance impactful and wonderful to see from a bunch of young men, their play on the floor that followed was just as awesome to see.
Four players scored 10+ points, including the returning Keion Brooks Jr., who looked like every bit of the impact player he was expected to be for his sophomore season. The Cats shot 55.8 percent as a unit on 52 total shot attempts, made 12 of their 13 free throws and scored a blistering 1.152 points per possession on 66 total possessions against the Gators.
Let’s go through a rundown of this victory and glance at what made Kentucky so successful on Saturday, starting with a kid that’s drawn the ire of many BBN members in recent weeks.
If the Cats can get this version of Brandon Boston moving forward, they’re going to become quite dangerous in the weeks ahead
Look, I know Boston didn’t come out and score 30 on 12 shot attempts or something absurd like many expect him to, but this was a performance that the freshman can build off and should provide a good boost of confidence for a guy that’s been struggling much of this season.
Boston scored 13 points on 3-of-8 shooting, but his contributions in other areas stood out in a big way. Boston grabbed four rebounds, racked up four steals and dished out three helpers with no turnovers in the win.
In my own opinion, it was the first game where Boston looked truly comfortable out on the floor. Sure, the shooting numbers weren’t great, but there’s plenty of other ways to make an impact and Boston did just that. The guy that threw the lob for KBJ’s first points of the season? You guessed it. That was Boston off a great read by Allen on a baseline out of bounds pass on the other end that led to some easy transition points.
This right here might have been my favorite play Boston’s made all season. I legitimately said out loud, “Whoa. I didn’t know he had that one in the bag. What a pass.”
In the midst of comparing the national title game to pro wrestling, I made this GIF because Brandon Boston shocked the shit out of me with this pass.— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) January 11, 2021
(Yes, it's getting added to an upcoming piece.) pic.twitter.com/aQg2Vsce8u
Just when you thought Boston would force a tough shot in the lane off the pass from Sarr (who had some excellent feeds on Saturday), he attacks the closeout, elevates and makes a beautiful dumpoff pass to KBJ for an easy slam. That’s the kind of creativity you want to see from somebody that’s been struggling.
Keion Brooks Jr. may not make as big of a leap in his sophomore season as say, PJ Washington, but it’s clear even after one game that he’s ready to make one
I know it’s hard to maintain a level head when the lone returner from last season’s rotation is from your hometown and you want to see him perform at the highest level ... but, man. Did Keion Brooks Jr. look good or what against the Gators? The O’Dome was the site of one of KBJ’s best performances last season and it was the site of Brooks’ first outing of the season.
To sum it up in simple terms, Brooks scored in double figures five times all last season, including in the last game he played for the Cats this past March. He had 12 points, six rebounds, a career-high four assists, a block and a steal in just 24 minutes of action.
I'm getting into it now, but if this is the KBJ that the 'Cats are getting ... oh, boy. pic.twitter.com/ty9r51D9nx— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) January 11, 2021
He looked aggressive, but under control, and as good as a player could look who hadn’t played in a real basketball game in over nine months with brand-new teammates.
One of the many nice plays on the offensive end from the Cats came from a Brooks pass off a baseline cut from Davion Mintz for one of those four assists. Even when he lost the ball on the drive into the lane, he had the awareness to gather himself, the ball and then find Mintz for the reverse layup.
Who doesn't love a great baseline cut and bounce pass for a reverse layup? The 'Cats did well against the press all game long. Love this read from KBJ even with him losing the ball for a second. pic.twitter.com/2eKBdpUpuH— Michael Whitlow (@couldbelikemike) January 12, 2021
Florida went to the press defensively often throughout the contest, but the Cats handled it well. This was a great example of beating it and a good read from Brooks.
The offensive execution was superb in the early going and didn’t slow down as the game moved along
Florida’s not the most imposing defense in the SEC, but the way Kentucky ran their offense at times was just beautiful to watch. It’s been a while since we’ve been able to say that, but the ball wasn’t sticking and bodies weren’t stuck in park. It’s one thing to get shots. It’s another to get open looks and convert, and Kentucky got some great looks early and often.
Personally, I’m a sucker for some good screen-the-screener action. Mintz and Sarr nailed this BLOB set, screening for each other and getting Sarr that typical baseline jumper that’s been a staple of his game (and the guy he came in to replace from last season). It’s almost like a 1930’s black-and-white comedy short where people are just chasing around people and no chance of catching them.
Calipari’s teams are usually pretty good in baseline/sideline out of bounds situations and being able to get consistent points from them will be a welcomed sight moving into the heart of conference play.
This set brought a giant smile to my face because it’s something I’ve seen the Golden State Warriors run a hundred times for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson during their run of dominance as the league’s best backcourt.
That’s not to say that Dontaie Allen is going to become either one of them of course, but running elevator action in the half-court for your best 3-point shooter is a splendid idea and this was perfectly executed by Sarr and Isaiah Jackson to free up Allen. It’s great to see Calipari not only continue to give Allen a good amount of minutes, but to also run sets for him and his shooting ability.
These next couple of plays are centered around Devin Askew and Davion Mintz. They both showed their knowledge of the floor around them and continued to display their improvement taking turns running the offense.
Plus, any time you can get 22 points and six assists from your starting backcourt, it tells you they’re doing something(s) right.
KBJ makes a good read to Jackson and he turns to face up and hit a pull-up jumper, but watch Askew before Brooks delivers the pass. He points to Allen on the left wing, seeing that the sharpshooter has space to potentially get off another attempt from deep. Brooks still found an open man, but it’s a small example of how the game has really been slowing down for the early-enrollee.
This pass from Mintz had me rewinding the game multiple times because, what?
Mintz takes the high ball-screen from Jackson and the Gators hedge him hard, leading to the cross-court find to Boston in the corner, who makes a great move on his pivot foot and goes Tim Duncan with a high shot off the square for the bucket.
Is it a dangerous pass? Of course, even with the Cats up 19 points.
Is it a great pass because Mintz realized Boston’s man would take Jackson rolling down the paint and knew he’d be open? Absolutely.
Other topics of note:
- Olivier Sarr had 10 points, a pair of rebounds and two assists in the win, but those two assists weren’t exactly telling of his passing on Saturday. He made some excellent finds to guys out of the post and then brought the whole house down basically off a great entry pass from KBJ.
- Isn’t it great when Isaiah Jackson isn’t in foul trouble? In just 20 minutes of action, Jackson scored nine points, grabbed six rebounds, blocked four shots and dished out two assists. In the last piece I wrote, I mentioned how important it is for Kentucky’s frontcourt for him to stay out of foul trouble because he’s such a difference maker when he’s able to stay on the court and when you can get offensive production for him out of plays that aren’t even drawn up for him? That’s such an added bonus.
- According to BartTorvik, Saturday brought Kentucky’s best adjusted offensive rating of the season (121.8) and their third-best adjusted defensive rating (83.0), trailing the season-opening win against Morehead State (76.7) and the tight loss in Indy to Kansas (78.1). Another key number was the turnover count. 14 turnovers was a problem, but the vital note was that Kentucky only allowed 14 points off those turnovers. The Cats scored 25 points off 14 Florida turnovers on their end. Add in 31 bench points (!) and 34 points in the paint and that’s a recipe for success.
One final thought on what transpired before the game
For those that were appalled and furious at Kentucky taking a knee during the National Anthem, let me just say this (and a couple other things): have you seriously not been paying attention? Even after everything that has happened just in this past year?
This team told you what they were about four months ago.
No, really. They made a video and everything. (I even wrote about it!)
The fact that you expect a team full of young Black men, led by a coach who has taught countless young Black men to help them reach their goals, to just “shut up and dribble” is willful ignorance on your part.
Even after the thousands of explanations of “it’s not about the flag or the military” from prominent figures, athletes and all throughout social media since Colin Kaepernick put his own career on the line to bring the topic of social injustices to the forefront of discussions in the country, you think John Calipari and his kids are communists.
(No, seriously. Read this tweet from Calipari’s daughter, Erin.)
It’s real, too.
Chief of Police in Clarkson, Kentucky calls the UK Coach John “The Comy” Calipari and says he will be calling Mitch Barnhart pic.twitter.com/WSZ3pDv1Ln— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) January 11, 2021
Not only are the thoughts of many BBN members just disgusting to read, but it also shows how much these kids have had to battle through off the court, too. They’ve been harassed online for not just a 1-6 start as players, but for also standing up for their own lives and the lives of their friends and family as human beings.
This is a great group of kids that has had to go through challenges that virtually nobody’s ever had to go through in the sport. Not only are they playing for arguably the biggest program in the history of college basketball, they’re away from their family and friends in the middle of a global pandemic (yeah, that’s still a thing), unable to truly play in front of massive crowds while going through growing pains as a unit.
I hope I speak for many when I say I’m so proud of these players and the way they’ve used their platforms to make their voices heard, even when they don’t physically say a word.
Black Lives Matter. They will always matter.