CRAWFORD | Kentucky's long-distance daggers cut down Alabama, 85 - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Kentucky's long-distance daggers cut down Alabama, 85-59

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Tyler Ulis and Derek Willis cheer for teammates in Friday's 85-59 SEC Tournament win over Alabama. (AP photo) Tyler Ulis and Derek Willis cheer for teammates in Friday's 85-59 SEC Tournament win over Alabama. (AP photo)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) — I don’t want to overplay the University of Kentucky’s 83-61 win over Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Let me say that, right at the outset.

Alabama is an NIT team. Just like LSU. Just like Florida. The Wildcats have been very impressive in their past three wins, over those three teams. But they are what they are.

That’s out of the way. Now, here’s what Kentucky is.

It is better. Maybe a lot better than the team we saw for most of the season.

Kentucky has two All-American guards in Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray. Search your own memory for the last team you remember that had TWO All-Americans at the guard spot.

Those guys are guaranteed. They’re blue-chip stocks. They’re Lockheed Martin, Eli-Lilly, H&R Block or AT&T. Death, taxes, and Murray finishing with at least 20. Ulis might not have been at his best Friday night. He finished with 17 points and five assists. Murray, by the way, had 23, and made 5 of 10 threes — and had four assists.

Now here’s where the reason for optimism comes in for Kentucky. Alex Poythress scored 20 points. He went 4-5 from three. He went 7-8 overall. He had seven rebounds. In three games against Alabama this season, Poythress scored 59 points. About the only thing he did wrong was his bow-and-arrow motion after his fourth three. It was fine, if his bow-and-arrow was Nerf. But you can’t criticize a guy for that.

Against Alabama, Poythress is Superman. He’s the Hulk. We have to wait to see how he is against better teams. Calipari has told him before each Alabama game this season that there’s no one on their team who can guard him. Now, he needs Poythress to believe that every night.

“From the jump, everybody on the team was just in a rhythm,” Poythress said. “We were playing great defense and it led to our offense. Everybody was confident out there. . . . Every game I step on the court I try to have a big game. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. We played a complete game, and we’re just looking to build on it tomorrow.

Want a scary stat? Kentucky scored 83 points, but only 20 in the paint. That means this team bludgeoned Alabama without needing a bunch of layups and dunks. This wasn't lob city. It was bomb city. It shot better from three-point range (13 of 23, 56.5 percent) than from two-point range (16-32, 50 percent).

If it can keep doing that, they better reserve a block of rooms in Houston. But let's hold off on penciling that in just yet.

Right now, the eye test? Kentucky is passing it.

This was a team that two months ago nobody worried about from the perimeter. Murray liked every shot he saw. Skal Labissiere couldn’t play in the post. Marcus Lee wasn’t the offensive answer down low.

On Murray, Calipari said, “The people that have watched at the beginning of the year know how much his game has changed. And what's happened is he went from degree of difficulty shots, avoid the contact, and just throw a ball at the rim, not getting to the foul line, not shooting enough catch-and-shoots. Assist-to-turnover ratio was under water. And we just kept demanding. This is what the best version of you looks like. He's a great kid. He wants to be coached. And I was on him hard. Not as hard as I was on Karl Towns, but I've been on him really hard. All of a sudden, you're seeing an efficient player who's volume scoring.”

When Louisville faced Kentucky, the Wildcats won with the help of some deep threes, and Louisville’s coaches noted that Kentucky just made some shots they didn’t expect the Wildcats to make.

That Kentucky team is no more. Now, you have to expect it. This is a Kentucky team that is comfortable with jump shots. Calipari has reconfigured its offense to create perimeter looks, and Tyler Ulis knows how to get them for his teammates, and himself.

On the season, UK shoots 65 percent around the rim, 41 percent from the left corner and 40 percent from the right wing. But over the last several weeks, those numbers have gotten hotter.

Calipari acknowledges, this team isn’t like his others. In college basketball today, when a team scores 83 points, you can usually figure that it made a bunch of free throws, or had a ton of layups and dunks. With Kentucky, that wasn’t the case on Friday. It made just 12 free throws. It had just 20 points in the paint. In the first half, it made 14 shots, only four of which were in the paint. 

“This team is the first team I’ve had in a long, long time where we always seem to be shooting less free throws than the other team,” Calipari said. “And at times, 20 to 25 less free throws than the other team. We’re trying to drive the ball, now. We’re trying to throw it in. But we’re just, either we’re not getting hit hard enough, but that’s a fact for this team, which means, you’ve got to try to win. It forces you to shoot jumpers. We’re not a team that likes to shoot 22 threes, but we’d like to shoot 17. But we are a team that likes to have 18 assists and 7 turnovers. Now 7 is low for me. I’d like to have about 10 or 11, and the reason is, I want them to be aggressive and attack, which means you’re going to have 9, 10, 11 turnovers. When you have 5 and 7, you probably weren’t aggressive enough.”

The problem is that you can’t always count on that perimeter precision. This was a great night for Kentucky, but is it able to play this well against teams rated better than 85th in Ken Pomeroy’s index? Is this roll Kentucky is on for real?

Who knows? But I wouldn’t want to be one of those teams drawing Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament to find out.

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