The Kentucky Wildcats pulled away from the Buffalo Bulls today by a score of 95-75. It was a closer game than the score showed, but the Cats turned on the jets when Buffalo managed to cut the lead to 4.
From start to finish, this was one of the best games we’ve seen this team play. They were aggressive on both sides of the ball and they kept fighting even when things got shaky.
It’s becoming a broken record, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the best player on this Kentucky team. He led the way with 27 points on 10-12 shooting. Yes, 10-12. Time and time again he makes big shots for this team and he puts his teammates in the right position to be successful.
Now, it wasn’t just Shai’s game today. Hamidou Diallo played his best game since pre-conference play. He was patient on the offensive side, and a bully on the defensive side. If Kentucky can get that kind of play from him consistently, every team in the tournament should be shaking in their boots.
The Cats now advance to the sweet sixteen where they await the winner of UMBC and Kansas State. Kentucky has the advantage, but again, it’s the NCAA Tournament. Anything can happen.
Until then, Happy St. Patrick’s Day and go Cats!
Here’s a recap of everything the Cats and Coach Cal said about the win, courtesy of UK Athletics:
JOHN CALIPARI: My comment to the players after the game was the reason this has been the most rewarding season I’ve had in over 30, or however many I’ve done this, is because of what’s happening for Wenyen, what’s happening for Hami. You saw what he is and what he’s capable of today. Let me say this, you may say that -- I was trying to learn about him and he was trying to learn about me. We were trying to figure this out. Everybody said, Why are you starting him? Because he deserves it, I love him, and he’s going to do it. It just took us a long time.
Wenyen, the same. He had to conquer himself. When you’re not playing well you have to kick out of it and go.
And Shai, I didn’t really enjoy coaching Shai, but he’s a good kid, I guess (laughter).
Q. What I asked Hamidou yesterday about whether they were overestimating the importance of experience. Do you think you answered the question today?
HAMIDOU DIALLO: The same answer yesterday. We just try to come out and try to prove everybody wrong, and that’s what we did today. And can’t feel better about this one.
Q. At one point after you hit a 3-pointer, you turned to the crowd and silenced them. Do you enjoy when you have a crowd against you? Does that feed you guys?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: This whole group is a bunch of competitors, we go after it every day in practice. We love proving people wrong, and that’s what we did today.
Q. I’m sure you saw that Virginia lost yesterday. Is that a wake-up or a reminder to see when a huge upset happens? Is that something that reminds you that anything can happen in March Madness and makes you play more on your game?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: Yeah, Coach has been telling us this whole week, You never know what can happen in this tournament. And you have to step up and make plays. And we don’t focus on any team but ourselves right now. We try to get better each and every game.
WENYEN GABRIEL: Definitely. I don’t watch too many of the games, but when you hear about the upsets, it tells us to lock in more and focus on anything can happen.
HAMIDOU DIALLO: It makes us play with a little more chip on our shoulder because we don’t want to end the season now, we want to play to the last game. So we’re coming out there with more chip on our shoulder.
Q. Coach Cal frequently jokes about all the players that he sent to the NBA, telling them that he’s held them back when they’ve been in college. We know we haven’t seen all your full games yet. What parts of your games has he been holding you back on?
JOHN CALIPARI: Hami has a list.
HAMIDOU DIALLO: We’re just trying to get better every day. We know there was going to be a lot of adversity. We’re playing with a bunch of talented players. Every night can’t be your night. And that’s what we knew when we came here, and that’s why we chose to come here.
WENYEN GABRIEL: Just try to go out and play the game and show our strengths, and the other stuff will come. Right now we have to focus on what makes us look good out there.
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: Myself, including this whole group, has probably felt like he held us back at one point in the season. If you really know the game and you watch the game, when we do what he’s asking us to do, we’re a much better team than you’ve seen in the past couple of weeks.
Q. You made it tough on them to start the game defensively, you jumped 20-10 you were up. Was there any talk about your focus, defensively, to start the game? They’re the underdog, was there talk, don’t let them get hope or match their intensity or anything like that?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: Our identity is defensively. So that’s the first thing we focus on going into every game. We know if we shut down the other team we’re capable. We just go into every game trying to lock up the other opponent.
Q. You show up with obviously the reputation of excellent defense. Clearly the last few games you have been a huge factor offensively. What point along the season did the offense open up for you in the sense that you saw where your shots were going to be and what you could do at this level?
SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER: About midpoint during the season. I watched a lot of film. I was really taking what Coach was asking of me, what this team needed me to do. I just tackled it. Once I cleared that role out and stuff like that, I worked on my game and got better every day.
Q. Obviously the freshman thing gets played and played and played.
JOHN CALIPARI: And I whine. Coach and I talked about it before the game, Nate and I talked. There’s nothing there. He’s a great guy and a heck of a coach now. What he’s done and how that team plays and what they’ve done in their league, amazing. It’s amazing.
Q. But what I wanted to ask you was -- (laughter) -- sorry. Obviously today was a game with a ton of peril and the other night was a game that had all kinds of things that could have happened. Would you say your kids might have graduated to the next class now? Are they beyond your regular freshmen?
JOHN CALIPARI: There will still be experiences in this tournament as we go forward that they’ve never faced and I have to try to talk them through it. I told them at halftime Buffalo is going to make a run. They may tie the game up. So what, just keep playing. They made their run and got it to six, they may have made it to four. I said, This is what happens in this stuff, you’ve got to keep playing.
I think, again, we are inexperienced and all that stuff. But I’ve got good players, and my challenge was they had to establish themselves first. Hami is still figuring it out.
Second thing is, they had to change how they thought about training and working and preparation. I talked to them today. We had a great shoot-around today. And I said, the beginning of the year -- Sean Farnham watched this in South Carolina, and he said that was the worst shoot-arounds that I’ve ever seen one of your teams have. We had guys laughing and joking, and I had to stop and scream. It was an hour and 10 minutes. My shoot-arounds are 40 minutes, 42, 45 minutes.
Today they were good. It takes my team a year to really learn how important it is to use the entire day to prepare for a game. It’s rewarding to see individuals do what they’re doing. But it’s also rewarding to get them to understand they need each other, because this is a team sport.
And I said this before, Pat Riley said to me, one of the best compliments: Your players are all good teammates in this league. They come in this league and they understand. They share.
And you’re right, they’ve all had to give up something, and I held them back. You ask DeMarcus or Anthony, ask Devin, he’s still mad I didn’t start him. Am I going to start now? Devin Booker had 78 in a NBA game and I didn’t start them. Eric Bledsoe, You held me out. You’re doing all right. I said, Will you buy dinner?
Q. You’ve come a long way with these young men. You decide now going into the next round if you can name one thing, just one thing that you would like to instill in them as a team or as individuals for the next round, what would it be?
JOHN CALIPARI: Well, let me take that back, I need -- Nick is the only one that isn’t breaking through right now. For him personally, I want to see Nick Richards step up and dunk and block and play. He’s kind of holding himself back right now. And I start him just like I did Hami every day, because I want him to break through.
As a team, the biggest thing is everyone is connected. Everyone is for each other. And we still have a couple of guys that aren’t quite the servant leaders that they need to be. Like I’m playing for everyone else. Well, if I’ve got a whole team of guys doing that, I’m not playing for me, I’m playing for everybody else, that’s when this thing takes off.
We’re getting closer, but that’s probably the one thing I hope.
Q. Shai has the early morning sessions. Do you see any MKG at all in his habits?
JOHN CALIPARI: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had the morning breakfast club. This kid goes at 7 a.m. But he also watches tape. He’ll go up and show me turnovers, show me what you want. What he was missing was any kind of skip, he couldn’t see it. And so you’ve got to keep showing them. Then when he does it you have to reward him. Now you see him come down and throw skip passes. But it took two months.
And he has a spirit about him, a smile. Every Canadian kid -- I don’t know why I don’t get every Canadian kid, Jamal Murray, Trey, Michael, they all like have smiles, and they have -- when Jamal would come and practice he’d look at me and go, Coach. Like, I wasn’t smiling. Smile. And so his spirit starts moving us that way. He was the one guy that was having fun. The other guys on this team two months ago, everything was a struggle. This kid was just smiling and laughing.
I kept bringing it up, Be like him. Happy-go-lucky. But he’s working. On time for everything. Never late for anything. Goes to class, does all that he’s supposed to do. And look at him, he’s playing himself into being one of the best players in the country.
Q. Very efficient today, 7 of 15. Seemed like every time UB put a little bit of run on you, one of your guys would come up and hit a big 3. How big was that?
JOHN CALIPARI: The last 10 games we’re shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line. Against Davidson we only took six. And I’m still trying to figure out, how did we only take six? Was it their defense? Was it what we did? Was it that we were trying to be aggressive? I don’t know.
But we want to take between 15 and 18 3s. We’re not taking 30. Any time in the history of my career my team takes 30 shots from the 3, we lose. We don’t win those games.
We’re not relying on 3s, but we shoot 40 percent. It’s a different -- I mean, some guys are going to shoot 30 and that’s how they coach and that’s great. It’s not what I do.