Cats Ride Camp Cal, Ulis to Dominant Win in SEC Opener

As Kentucky prepared for Southeastern Conference play, John Calipari took a moment to set expectations.

“I think that for all of our league, I think every game is going to be within eight points,” Calipari said Friday. “There’s no – we’re not that team.”

“That team” was in reference to last year’s Kentucky squad that blitzed through 21 league games, winning 15 by double digits. With a brand-new group, Coach Cal was quick to point out history would not repeat itself.

It still surely won’t, but these Wildcats have at least a little dominance in them.

“I think after a week of preparation and a lot of training in practice, we were ready for this game and ready for games coming up,” said Jamal Murray, who had 18 points and six rebounds. “We were mentally prepared for what they had offensively.”

UK built a lead that grew to as large as 25 points in the first half and never looked back, coasting past Ole Miss with an 83-61 win on the strength of arguably its most complete performance of the season. Kentucky (11-2, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) held the visiting Rebels (10-3, 0-1 SEC) to 40 percent shooting and outrebounded them, 41-27.

The week – with no class and an exclusive basketball focus – have apparently served the Wildcats well.

“First off, next year I want to be invited to Camp Cal,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said.

Since a win over Louisville last Saturday, the Cats have hit the gym and hit it hard at Calipari’s direction. 

“This whole week, off days we’ve been going twice, three times a day just practicing,” Alex Poythress said. “We’ve just been doing all straight basketball. It helps, it shows. We played good.”

During Camp Cal, Calipari doesn’t have to worry about budgeting time. The Cats have gotten down to details, from free-throw shooting to zone offense. Considering how young UK’s team is, this time is vital.

And it’s paying off.

“I think we got better defensively and how we’re guarding and stuff,” Murray said. “We’re just a lot mentally tougher. Skal (Labissiere) did a great job today. Marcus (Lee) did a great job. Guys like Charles (Matthews) stepped up too. Everybody kind of came together.”

Though his stat line (nine points and three rebounds in 14 minutes) was relatively modest, Labissiere’s play was among the stories of the game due to the improved fight he showed. The highly touted freshman big man showed a willingness to mix it up and an ability to withstand physical play that have been notably absent of late.

“He’s gotten a lot better,” Murray said. “I think this camp – Camp Cal – has been good for him. A lot of listening, a lot of learning and as you saw today he’s gotten better. He’s gotten better rebounding, mentally tougher and he’s ready for these guys now.”

Calipari isn’t ready to say Labissiere has arrived, but the 6-foot-11 forward is on the right path.

“It's a first step,” Calipari said. “It's the first step. There's still a lot of other stuff still there.”

Tyler Ulis, meanwhile, has to be close to reaching his potential, otherwise the SEC might be in big trouble.

Ulis – whom Kennedy likened to an ice skater on the floor – orchestrated a UK attack that piled up 1.22 points per possession to the tune of 20 points and a career-high 10 assists. 

“I think, for my money – and I watch a lot of basketball and don’t want to misspeak– but I think he’s the best point guard in college basketball, is what I think,” Kennedy said. “He has the ability to run that team.”

He added another career high in steals (six) for good measure, combining with Isaiah Briscoe to make life tough on Stefan Moody, the SEC’s leading scorer. Moody managed 23 points, but none were easy and they were accompanied by five turnovers.

“He is a good player,” Calipari said. “He also took on a challenge because everybody is talking about their guard. And I knew he did it, I laughed. After the game I said, I know what you did and in front team he smiled.”

Ulis didn’t deny that guarding Moody was a motivator for him, especially after the Ole Miss guard nearly shot the Rebels to an upset of the Cats a season ago.

“You can’t just let someone come out there and just kill you because you could be the reason you lose the game,” Ulis said. “It’s a matchup you have to lock in like I tried to do defensively and just try to stop him so you’re not the reason your team lost.”

Instead – as he has been most of the season – Ulis was the biggest reason his team won.

“He makes us go,” Poythress said. “I don’t know, there’s not much more we can say about it.”