'Desperate' Cats Changing Season's Trajectory

Tyler Ulis and Alex Poythress both said it on Saturday, that the way Kentucky played against Vanderbilt “felt a little like last year.”

Well, Tuesday night felt even more like last year.

The No. 20/19 Wildcats blitzed Missouri in a performance that would have made the 2014-15 UK team that started the season 38-0 proud. Within five minutes, Kentucky led 20-2, a start Missouri head coach Kim Anderson compared to getting “run over by a truck.” By halftime, it was 47-20. At the end, UK had an 88-44 victory that didn’t fully reflect the Cats’ dominance.

“This game from the start I thought they played with an incredible amount of energy. It reminded me a lot of last year’s game, I’ll be honest with you, when we came in here,” Anderson said, referencing UK’s 86-37 win. “I just thought that for whatever reason they were really, really energized.”

This, of course, is not last year. Any such comparisons are mostly meaningless and certainly unfair, no matter how truck-like the Cats might have been. What is important is the development of this year’s team, and that’s unmistakable after a three-game stretch in which UK (16-4, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) has become more dominant each time out.

“Our team, we're playing desperate now,” John Calipari said. “We're playing with an attitude. Refuse to lose.”

Ulis, as he always does, led that effort.

UK’s maestro was once again in command from start to finish, scoring 20 points and dishing out eight assists. He’s now reached the 20-point mark in seven of nine games and posted five or more assists in each outing during that stretch.

“Tyler isn’t going to be stopped,” Isaiah Briscoe said. “He’s going to give 110 percent. He’s a little guy, but he has a big heart. That takes him over the top with anybody.”

Briscoe has a pretty big heart himself – Calipari called him the “best defensive guard and rebounding guard in the country” – and on Wednesday his shot fell too. Briscoe hit three jump shots and 5-of-6 free throws, much to the delight of the 23,933 fans in Rupp Arena.

“The fans are the fans,” Briscoe said. “I love them. I think we have the best fan base in the country. So that was cool.”

Briscoe’s shooting certainly changes things for UK, but production along the lines of 15 points, six assists and six rebounds isn’t far from the norm for him. The players who are truly transforming their team are Derek Willis and Skal Labissiere.

Willis continued to assert himself as the story of the season with 18 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks. The double-double was his second in four games, a stretch in which he is averaging 12.3 points and 10 rebounds and changing the way opponents approach UK with his ability to shoot from the four position.

“He's playing desperate,” Calipari said. “He's rebounding with two hands. He was a double-double. And basically, he's put a couple guys on bench. And they're good players, but this is about performance.”

The shift for Willis is an incredible one. Through two-and-a-half season, he seemed poised to be only a bit player. Now, thanks to a change in mentality both and off the court, he has asserted himself as one UK’s most important players.

“I would say, honestly, I wasn’t really being competitive with basketball, and then it was like I talked with some friends and a lot of older people and they let me know the competitiveness doesn’t transition just with basketball," Willis said. "It’s everyday life. There’s going to be guys competing with you for jobs, for a girl, anything. If you don’t step up and kind of be a man, then honestly, it’s just going to be a really difficult life for you. That’s kind of what made me change.”

Labissiere, meanwhile, is trying to make a similar change. He took another step in the right direction with 12 points and a career-high five blocks.

“I’m feeling a lot more comfortable,” Labissiere said. “I’ve been working really hard. Practice has been harder; we’ve been pushing each other at practice. So my confidence went up a little bit. I’m getting more comfortable out there.”

Labissiere is beginning to flourish on offense by taking advantage of his shooting touch and 6-foot-11 frame. Calipari goes out of his way to take a share of the blame for taking a while to capitalize on those unique gifts.

“Now the issue with Skal and again, I probably screwed him up to this point, because now you're seeing I'm letting him play different, and I'm putting him in different spots, and he looks more confident,” Calipari said.

Confident or not, Labissiere will need to step his game up to continue his emergence in UK’s next game. The Cats head to Kansas on Saturday for a matchup with a team that will exploit Labissiere if he doesn’t defend and rebound better. 

“We have to go play a Kansas team that's an inside-out game, that's how they play,” Calipari said. “What if he can't rebound in that game? Can I leave him in the game? You know I can't. … If you can't guard their big guy, and you can't get a rebound, I can't leave you in the game. I love you, come and stay with me tonight, but you can't play in that game.”

A week-and-a-half ago, a game in Allen Fieldhouse might have seemed like an impossible task. Since a loss at Auburn, things have changed.

But not Coach Cal.

“You guys, look, I knew we were getting better,” Calipari said. “And just somebody said what do you feel about that? If we hadn't lost that game, we, I may not have been able to get this team to think more desperate. To play with the refuse to lose attitude. It may not have happened.

“So, there's, you go through a season, there are ups and down, I've done this 30 years now. My whole job is are we playing our best in March? That's what I do. That's my mentality, I don't want to beat them up, I don't want to bury them with practices, three and four hour practices. I'm trying to figure them out.”