Building Momentum UK’s M.O. in SEC Tournament
In order to provide fans with additional coverage for the 2016 postseason, CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com will be sharing stories throughout tournament play to help feed the never-ending appetite the Big Blue Nation has for all things Kentucky basketball.
Kentucky’s ultimate goals cannot be reached in Nashville.
The Wildcats, however, can take a step toward them by playing well in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Not only would winning the title boost UK’s seed in the NCAA Tournament, but it would also serve to sustain the mojo the Cats built closing the regular season strong.
“It matters a lot,” Jamal Murray said of momentum. “We just gotta be focused and make sure we have the right energy going into the games and make sure everybody’s locked in and focused. We can’t take days off. We just gotta stay open minded and stay clear about our focus.”
Kentucky’s focus was undisputedly clear in its last two games, as the Cats turned in solid performances at Florida and against LSU on Senior Day. They plan to employ the same approach they used to win those games in the SEC Tournament.
“We’re just trying to win every game,” Murray said. “We’re trying to go in there with a refuse-to-lose mentality and everybody is locked in and ready to play. We’re just anxious to get on the court.”
No one will be more excited to play than UK’s bigs, who have come on strong of late.
Skal Labissiere has started the last two games, playing up to the five-star hype that accompanied his Lexington arrival. He averaged 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in UK’s two wins en route to SEC Freshman of the Week honors, but the way his emergence transforms the entire front line is even more noteworthy than his raw numbers.
“So now you have other guys that aren’t asked to do things that would make them less than confident,” John Calipari said on Monday. “They’re all in positions where, ‘I can do this, it’s who I am, and I can be confident about it.’ Skal, being plugged in, really kind of puts the pieces where they need to be.”
Pieces in place, UK’s frontcourt had what likely qualifies as its best game of the season against LSU. Marcus Lee had a double-double in 21 minutes. Alex Poythress scored 12 points in 19 minutes. Derek Willis drilled a pair of 3s in his return from an ankle injury. In total, UK outrebounded LSU, 45-29.
If they continue that level of play, no longer does UK’s backcourt – arguably the best in college basketball – have to do the heavy lifting.
“This is the perfect time for them to come on because it’s March,” SEC Player of the Year Tyler Ulis said. “Any minute is going to be win or go home, so with them stepping up, it’s big for our team. Everybody is doing their job now and I feel like we can make a run.”
‘They want to see us play, and we love it’
Jamal Murray has never played in the SEC Tournament before.
So, what does he expect to see this weekend?
“Hopefully a lot of Kentucky fans,” Murray said.
It’s safe to say Murray won’t be disappointed.
With the Cats headed to Nashville, fans will be following their beloved team to their second home. Every year the league tournament is hosted there, the Big Blue Nation descends on the Music City in droves.
Tyler Ulis experienced it firsthand a season ago, as UK breezed to the SEC Tournament title and ran its record to 34-0 with three wins in Bridgestone Arena. He’s been trying to tell his younger teammates about the experience, but it doesn’t figure to sink in until they take the floor at 7 p.m. ET on Friday.
“I was telling Zay (Isaiah Briscoe) -- we were looking at pictures and he was like, ‘Was that at Rupp?’ ” Ulis said. “And I was like, ‘No, that’s the SEC Tournament.’ These fans, they travel for us and they go anywhere we go, and it’s going to be like a home game for us, which is great.”
Though Ulis has seen “Blue Gets In” in action for two seasons now, even he doesn’t fully understand it.
“That’s crazy and it makes no sense,” Ulis said. “But they want to see us play, and we love it.”
On that bow-and-arrow routine
Shooting an invisible bow and arrow had already become Jamal Murray’s signature celebration, but Saturday it went viral.
Murray fired his arrow after his first made 3 against LSU and CBS cameras were positioned perfectly to capture EJ Floréal falling as if he had actually been shot. His teammates caught him and Mychal Mulder mimed resuscitating Floréal, with his hands serving as defibrillator paddles.
The routine had the look of a rehearsed celebration, but Murray wasn’t in on it.
“It wasn’t really planned out, honestly,” Murray said. “It was just kind of like next time I hit a shot, shoot at them all. So then I shot the ball right in front of the bench and it just happened. It just played out that way.”
Murray dodged an arrow himself later, as Antonio Blakeney found an opening for a 3-pointer of his own after Murray broke out the celebration again. Blakeney missed, sparing Murray an earful from his coach.
But had he made it, what would Murray have done?
“I would have came down and hit another 3,” Murray said, drawing laughs from reporters.