BOZICH | Pearl says this Kentucky team more "physically overwhelming" than 2012 champs
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) – Until further notice, the conversation about this Kentucky basketball team is not about the games.
Maybe that will change when the Wildcats (33-0) surge into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament in Cleveland in two weeks. Maybe that won't happen until they arrive at the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Maybe it won't happen at all.
Until then, the conversation must begin with how this Kentucky team compares to other thunderous teams, especially on days when the Wildcats flatten overmatched teams like Auburn, the team the Wildcats dispatched, 91-67, in the SEC Tournament semifinals at Bridgestone Arena Saturday.
Bruce Pearl, the Auburn coach, can talk about that topic. Actually, Pearl can talk about any topic – Frozen, the Kardashians, NFL free agency. Just point a recorder at Pearl and push “record.”
Pearl is especially qualified to discuss the strengths and weaknesses (if they exist) of John Calipari's UK teams because he coached against Cal for two seasons at Tennessee and then worked for ESPN the last three seasons.
I aimed my recorder at Pearl. I pushed “record.” This is what he said:
First topic? How does this team compare to the 2012 Kentucky team, the one that won the national title?
“That was my favorite team to watch of any team since I've been in college basketball for 30-something years,” Pearl said. “That Kentucky basketball team. My favorite team to watch.
“They made each other better. This team is more physically overwhelming than that team. And this team shoots it consistently better. And they go to the foul line.
“I mean, they're just pretty complete. And they run great stuff.”
So better than 2012, the team that featured Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones, one guy (Davis) who will be the NBA MVP one day and two other guys that will have long and productive careers?
“I did not play against the team in 2012,” Pearl said. “I was on hiatus (because of issues with the NCAA).
“That was the favorite team, my favorite team to ever watch because of how well they played together. Kidd-Gilchrist and his toughness and some of the incredible pieces. But this team is deeper. This team is bigger. This team is, I think, more physical.”
Pearl did coach against the 2010 Kentucky team – in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament in this building. Pearl's Volunteers finished 11-5 in the SEC that season – and lost to John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and the rest of that Kentucky team, 74-45.
That remains the largest victory margin in the SEC Tournament semifinals since this event resumed in 1979.
Better than the 2010 UK team, a team that featured two guys that made the 2015 NBA All-Star team?
“I played against the Wall, Patterson, Cousins team, and yes, this team is better because that team did not perform as well against zone,” Pearl said. “That team was inconsistent at the free-throw line. This team is not.”
What makes this Kentucky team more overwhelming?
Pearl was without his two best inside players – Cinmeon Bowers (possible rules violation) and Jordon Granger (suspended for throwing a punch Friday) – against the Wildcats. So Auburn started a lineup with nobody taller than 6 feet 5 while Calipari started a lineup with nobody shorter than 6-6.
“Our bench, our coaches, at one point just started breaking down in laughter, as three 6-10 guys went off the foul line and another couple walked back in,” Pearl said “It was just unbelievable. They are a physically overwhelming team.”
And an unbeatable team?
The Wildcats have won 33 straight. They need one win for an SEC Tournament title to sit next to the SEC regular-season title the Wildcats have already won. Six wins are required to win the NCAA Tournament.
“They can be beaten,” Pearl said. “I'll say this now because I'll say it when I'm on ESPN.
“The game would need to be officiated in such a way where all of a sudden we're in the NCAA Tournament we start calling it closely for some reason. That would be the only thing that would be an issue and then how quickly they can adjust to that.
“Kentucky is a physical, strong team. And they play physically defensively and offensively. If they let them play, which I hope they would let them do come tournament time, that would be to a big, strong, physical, deep team's advantage.
“If for some reason they called it close, too close, that could bother ‘em.”
If a team has the tools, like maybe Wisconsin, Duke or Arizona, is there anything else they'll need to do to make the Wildcats scramble?
“You've got to be able to match their physicality,” Pearl said “You've got to be able to make shots. And you've got to be able to mix up that inside outside stuff.
“You've got to challenge shots. You've got to contest shots. This is a really good shot-making team … they don't miss open shots. And I've played against some Kentucky teams that did.
“(Devin) Booker and the Harrisons and their big guys and can step out and make 17 footers with great consistency. They do well from the foul line.”
Will this Kentucky team show that it's better than the 2012 Davis/Kidd-Gilchrist/Jones NCAA champs?
“We're going to see if it's better,” Pearl said.
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