Adebayo Stars in Kentucky’s First-Round Win

INDIANAPOLIS – Kentucky had a size advantage against Northern Kentucky and exploited it for much of Friday’s first-round game on the bulking shoulders of Bam Adebayo.

UK is fortunate to have had someone like Adebayo. Otherwise, Friday’s game could have been much different.

“I saw that we have to play through him to win games,” senior guard Dominique Hawkins said of Adebayo. “Give him the ball and when he gets trapped other players have to start making plays.”

The Norse (24-11), without a single player taller than 6-foot-7, had no answer for the bruising 6-10 forward. Adebayo had 10 points and nine rebounds in the first half alone, and finished with 15 points and a career-high 18 rebounds in leading second-seeded Kentucky (30-5) to an uninspiring 79-70 first-round NCAA Tournament victory.

“We know he can do that,” freshman guard De’Aaron Fox said of Adebayo. “It’s something he should be able to do every game. For us, we just gotta be able to get him the ball more. We know he’s going to grab rebounds, we know he’s going to get second-chance points, but we gotta make it to where it’s not so hard on him to score. Just getting him the ball more, let him work and we’ll be fine.”

Adebayo’s 18 rebounds against Northern Kentucky are the third most ever by a Wildcat in an NCAA Tournament game, and the most since Jerry Bird pulled down 24 in 1956.

The freshman’s performance was the latest in a string of impressive outings that has changed the dynamic of the guard-heavy Wildcats. After all, as Calipari so often likes to say, a team with no post presence is a fraud.

During the now-famous reboot that came after Kentucky lost three of four games in late January and early February, Coach Cal made it a point of emphasis for Adebayo to become more of a focal point in the Kentucky offense and more of a presence on the boards.

After 23 games, Adebayo had pulled down double-digit rebounds just three times and not once since Dec. 3 against UCLA. Despite his impressive stature, high motor and athleticism, he was pulling down just 6.8 rebounds per game.

Since the first game of the reboot on Feb. 7 against LSU, Adebayo has pulled down nearly four more rebounds per game, averaging 10.5 rebounds per game during the 12-game stretch.

After getting in foul trouble on a fairly routine basis – so much so that coaches were asked about it frequently – Adebayo has been whistled for three or more fouls just three times in the last 10 games.

The Little Washington, North Carolina, native now has a team-high seven double-doubles this season and has logged four double-doubles in the past eight games. He’s grabbed 15-plus rebounds three times during that span, including Friday night.

“I embrace it because my teammates believe in me,” Adebayo said in reference to the game plan focusing on getting him the ball. “That means Coach believes in me to score. All I can ask from my teammates is to keep giving me the ball and hopefully I’ll keep scoring and getting fouled.”

Against NKU, the game plan was to get Adebayo touches. Holding a size advantage, the Wildcats wanted to play to their strengths and feed the “beast.” After notoriously starting games slowly, Kentucky fed Adebayo inside and he came through with six of UK’s first 14 points on 3-of-4 shooting, including a pretty baseline jumper that Adebayo said he works on every day in practice and in individual workouts.

“What's great about him is he's making free throws,” UK head coach John Calipari said of Adebayo. “And our whole thing was we're going at him. We knew they'd trap, which they did.”

And the unselfish Adebayo did a good job of scoring in one-on-one situations and kicking out to others when the traps came.

“If they have open shots, I expect them to take them,” Adebayo said of his teammates. “I don’t expect them to pass me the ball every time because when they’re open I want them to shoot shots instead of be timid.”

“Not many guys can do what he’s doing right now,” Hawkins said.

On Friday, Kentucky was fortunate that NKU didn’t have anyone who could.