No Matter the Circumstances, UK Continuing Improvement
Kentucky was playing its best basketball of the season, but a question lingered.
What would happen when the Wildcats went cold from the outside against a quality opponent?
Well, it turns out they found a way to win anyway.
“Kentucky was on top of their game,” Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said.
On the heels of a five-game stretch in which UK hit no fewer than 10 3s in any game, shooting 49.1 percent from deep in the process, the Cats went cold. They managed only two makes in 10 tries against Alabama, but had no trouble dispatching the Crimson Tide, 78-53.
No. 16/14 UK (21-7, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) managed the blowout win in spite of playing without Derek Willis. Absent the sharp-shooting forward who has transformed his team with his outside shooting, the Cats adjusted and played a bigger lineup.
“We had to play different,” Calipari said. “If you watch, some of you guys are the 'Basketball Bennies' in the room. You saw we did some stuff different. We put in some different things based on who we have now.”
With Willis sitting due to a sprained ankle, Alex Poythress reentered the lineup after a five-game absence. For the first time in a while, UK had a player capable of consistently scoring in the post.
“Throwing the ball down there tonight to him helped us out a lot, especially when they went zone throwing it to the middle and him getting buckets,” said Tyler Ulis, who had his fourth double-double in six games with 19 points and 10 assists.
Poythress thrived, scoring 14 points in just 17 minutes after practicing only once. He reintroduced himself to his team on Monday with one of his signature dunks, victimizing Charles Matthews.
“I was really proud of him,” Calipari said. “He could have stayed out a couple more days. He knew the team needed him. He was sick over Texas A&M. He felt like, I probably could have gone in and helped. But he just wasn't quite there. So to have one day to practice, to do what he did, amazing. He looked comfortable. He took himself in and out. So he was good.”
Poythress returned to a Kentucky team that has come into its own since he last suited up. The Cats won four games in dominant fashion, then lost a hard-fought overtime game at Texas A&M that ended in bizarre fashion.
“We’re just becoming a team pretty much,” Poythress said. “Everybody’s coming together. Everybody’s falling into their roles. If you do this, you’re not trying to do anything else. So you just focus on that specific role. I feel like everybody’s coming into it.”
UK’s growth during the time Poythress was sidelined led some to wonder whether the Cats might be better off without the senior. Tuesday night should put an end to that speculation.
“No, it's not better without him,” Calipari said. “When Alex is the best version of himself, he's as good as any guy his size in the country, but he's got to come every day and be that guy. Today he played it without having played for two, three weeks. He was close to it for spurts. Now it's like, OK, it's time to finish.”
The finish line isn’t far away now.
UK sits in first place in the SEC with three regular-season games remaining, the first one a trip to Vanderbilt on Saturday. After that, it’s on the conference tournament and March Madness, the most unpredictable time of the year.
The good news on that front is the Cats are well versed in unpredictability by now.
“I think it’s a plus because we work so well together with different lineups, with different teams that we’ve been thrown at,” Marcus Lee said. “So if something happens, we can change it up real quick and be totally fine with it.”