Cats Host Vols on Thursday in SEC Rematch
It’s not that Isaiah Briscoe didn’t enjoy himself through the first few months of his college career, but things are different now.
|Kentucky vs. Tennessee|
|Thur., Feb. 18 - 7 p.m. ET
Game Notes: UK | UT
Digital Gameday Program
|UK||2015-16 Team Stats||UT|
“I’m having way more fun than I was at the beginning of the year,” Briscoe said. “I was having fun in the beginning of the year, but now it’s just amazing.”
As if his words weren’t enough, Briscoe’s smile reinforced his message as he answered questions about Kentucky’s February surge. It was the smile of a player who would rather be on no other team in the world.
“This is why I came to Kentucky,” Briscoe said. “We’re clicking on the court, we’re talking, smiling and we’re just playing basketball.”
The No. 14 Wildcats (19-6, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) are playing basketball and playing it well entering a home contest against Tennessee (12-13, 5-7 SEC) at 7 p.m. on Thursday. In sweeping its last three games, UK has beaten Florida, Georgia and South Carolina by an average margin of 26.7 points. Not only that, the Cats have scored at least 80 points and held each opponent to under 40-percent shooting from the field during the stretch.
“They’re becoming empowered,” John Calipari said. “The guys that listen to anything I say in this group know every year that I’m talking about empowering the team and it being about them. They’re getting there. You’re seeing each guy flow into a role that suits them and this is what this is about.”
The most prominent roles, of course, belong to star guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.
Ulis has interjected himself into the national-player-of-the-year conversation with his recent stellar play, averaging 19.7 points and 10.3 assists over his last three games to highlight a remarkable 14-game stretch.
“He's playing way better than he was a month ago,” Calipari said. “You can't say, 'Well, he was playing this well early in the year.' No he wasn't. He is way better as a player right now.”
Murray, meanwhile, isn’t far behind his running mate. The Kitchener, Ontario native has absolutely caught fire, pouring in 28.3 points per game during UK’s three-game winning streak and burying 18-of-31 (58.1 percent) 3-pointers.
The incredible shooting is one thing, but it doesn’t begin to capture his overall improvement.
“Well, he’s getting the ball by the man and he’s not messing around with it as much, which means he’s not turning it over as much,” Calipari said. “His shot selection has gotten better week by week by week. He’s getting to the rim instead of settling for all jump shots and step-backs and fades. When he has shots, he takes them. He’s just – his decision making as a basketball player has gotten better and better and better.”
Throughout the season, Murray has had to adjust to playing off the ball more than he ever did during his prep career. It’s been a change Calipari has seen one of his players go through before, and with similar success.
“He is probably playing a lot like Eric Bledsoe played when he played with John Wall,” Calipari said. “I can remember Eric getting 32 against Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament, just going crazy. I remember 27, 28 on the road down at Florida. You know, they play off each other. One game, one does it. The other game, the other does it.”
But don’t leave Briscoe out of UK’s backcourt equation.
The freshman might see his scoring fluctuate more than Ulis and Murray, but not his importance.
“I think that I contribute every way on the court.” Briscoe said. “If I gotta score, if I gotta rebound, play defense, I just do everything. Like I said, Tyler and Jamal have been shooting lights out of the ball, and my assists have been going up so I ain’t mad at that. Yeah, I enjoy seeing my teammates shine. They deserve it. They work hard.”
It’s that hard work that has paved the way for UK’s growth as a team, growth that’s not limited to the last three games.
Things began to turn a month ago in the wake of a loss at Auburn. After that, UK reeled off three dominant victories and took a top-five Kansas team to overtime in one of the nation’s toughest road environments. The next time out, UK built a 21-point lead before falling in its first matchup with Tennessee, 84-77.
“I just think that we really let that game go,” Briscoe said. “Like I said earlier, Tennessee, they played a great game. We’ll get our rematch tomorrow and see what happens then.”
Briscoe and the Cats are downplaying the revenge angle. Their main concern is proving the loss at Tennessee was but a 25-minute hiccup in the ascendance of a national-title contender.
“I mean, we didn’t like the loss,” Briscoe said. “And the game before that, the Kansas game, we felt that we had that game too. Then after that, Kansas is a top-five team, and we competed at their home court, which is hard to win at, and then after that we just came together, like, maybe we are a top-five team, regardless of what the rankings say or anything like that.”
“If we just come into practice every day and do what we have to do, hopefully we’ll start to play better, talk more on defense, play better defense, and we’ve been doing that.”
Kentucky Answers from Adversity with Most Complete Game of Season
Adversity struck hard Saturday in Columbia, S.C., with a John Calipari ejection moments into the game, a hostile crowd and first-half foul trouble for the Wildcats’ frontcourt. Kentucky hit back with its most complete performance of the season.
Inspired by their head coach’s dismissal less than three minutes into the game, UK jumped on the Gamecocks early and often for a dominating 89-62 victory at Colonial Life Arena. With the marvelous Tyler Ulis leading the way, UK handed the Gamecocks their first loss of the season at home and improved to 3-1 in games vs. ranked opponents (Associated Press Top 25 or USA Today Coaches’ Poll).
Ulis continued his All-America campaign and pushed himself into the national player of year race with his finest performance to date. Given the reins to the offense, Ulis responded with careers highs in points (27) and assists (12). Ulis dazzled with a 7-of-14 shooting performance, including three field goals as the shot clock expired.
The Wildcats used 11 3-pointers -- the third straight game UK has made at least 10 treys -- and six dunks to build a 42-27 halftime lead and eventually as big as a 34-point margin in the second half.
Freshman guard Jamal Murray added 26 points and junior forward Marcus Lee recorded his third double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) of the season and the first since the Illinois State game on Nov. 30.
• UK has won its last three games by an average margin of 26.7 points
• The Wildcats limited South Carolina to 62 points, improving to 130-5 (.963) under Calipari when holding the opponent to 63 or fewer points
• UK also held South Carolina to 32.7 percent from the floor, moving to 10-0 this season when keeping the opponent to less than 38 percent from the field
• Ulis’ double-double was the fourth of the season and his second in the last three games
• The 27-point, 12-assist game pushed Ulis’ school record of 20-point, five-assist games to 11
• Ulis tied his career high with four made 3-pointers
• With 12 assists, Ulis became the first player in school history with at least four assists in 18 straight games, breaking Roger Harden’s previous mark of 17 in 1985-86
• Murray notched his 10th game with at least 20 points and extended his double-figure scoring streak to 23 games
• Murray tied Darius Miller for the Calipari era record for the most conescutive games with a 3-point field goal at 25 games
• Freshman Isaiah Briscoe scored 10 points, his 13th double-figure game of the season, while dishing out three or more assists in his eighth straight outing
Ulis, Murray Sweep SEC Awards
After combining for 53.2 percent of Kentucky’s scoring in dominant victories over Georgia and South Carolina, Tyler Ulis was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Week and Jamal Murray was tabbed SEC Freshman of the Week. Ulis was also named ESPN’s National Player of the Week.
Ulis earned his third SEC Player of the Week honor, while Murray has now garnered a team-leading three SEC Freshman of the Week honors. Ulis’ ESPN National Player of the Week honor is the team’s first of the season and the first since James Young claimed the honor on Dec. 30, 2013. Kentucky leads the league with eight total honors.
Ulis averaged 20.5 points, 10.0 assists and 2.5 steals in leading the Wildcats to a 2-0 week, including a victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks, who were ranked No. 20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll and in a tie with the Wildcats for first place in the SEC heading into Saturday’s game in Columbia, S.C.
Murray averaged a team-high 25.0 points per game in the two dominating victories this week, which included 10 made 3-pointers.