CRAWFORD | What's next for college hoops? It could be Kentucky after third straight win
After a four-game losing streak, John Calipari's University of Kentucky team appears to be figuring things out. Their win over Missouri Saturday in Rupp Arena was their third straight.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – While the rest of college basketball is biting its fingernails, John Calipari appears to be sharpening his weapons.
As in, a dialed-in Kevin Knox. A steadily awakening Jarred Vanderbilt. A fast-focusing Quade Green.
The University of Kentucky basketball team scored its third straight impressive win – coming off of four straight losses – subduing Missouri 87-66 in Rupp Arena in a game that featured less drama than the Saturday morning headlines.
A Kentucky team that has been in search of itself for much of the season appears to be making some discoveries. It may not make 10 of 16 threes every night -- like it did Saturday night -- but it is doing everything else better, too.
"Right before your eyes, we're becoming a better basketball team," Calipari said. "It wore me out. But yesterday in practice, what I said, at one point . . . the reason I'm so relaxed and having fun coaching you, I'm not fighting everybody. It was only a month ago, three weeks ago half the team, it was a fight to get them to play how we were trying to get them to play. But the other side of it is it took us a while to figure out the team, and figure out Kevin Knox, and how we were going to play Jarred and what we were going to do, and Jarred joining us mid season made it hard."
The renaissance begins with Vanderbilt, who grabbed 14 rebounds in 26 minutes on the court and who has averaged 19 rebounds per 20 minutes since joining the team a dozen games ago. Missouri missed 31 shots on Saturday. Vanderbilt rebounded nearly one-third of those. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington change the personality of Kentucky's team. Nick Ward of Michigan State leads the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 19.2. Vanderbilt hasn't played enough games to be eligible to lead national statistic categories, but his percentage is 23.1.
"I think it’s safe to say I haven’t seen an offensive rebounder like (Vanderbilt) all season," Martin said. "I’d have to go back and check to be specific but, I don’t think I’ve seen a guy that attacks the glass like he did. He has talent without a question. He may have had four fouls or fouled out when he played at our place but he’s the guy who I remembered after the game. Just the way he attacked. He was just getting back into the groove of things so I can only imagine the level of play he’d be if he’d been here all season and played every game. With that size and athleticism he makes it hard on you. . . . He and Washington I thought played particularly well. We never could match their toughness level.”
This is not a team whose calling card in any way could be considered "toughness" just three weeks ago.
"Sometimes you've got to put different guys on the floor," Calipari said. "Dudes that are out there playing the most minutes are the toughest guys we have."
Knox continues to give Kentucky more consistency. After being quickly cleared from the cloud of a Yahoo! Sports report that said discovery documents in the ongoing college basketball corruption case showed that he or his parents had a meal with a representative of Andy Miller’s sports agency before his college career, Knox stayed focused and scored a controlled 21 points in 23 minutes against Missouri.
"With everything going on it has been a good week, just been blocking everything out," Knox said. "I had two good days of practice before this game. . . . That is just what Cal trained me for and my dad trained me for in life, just to block everything out, all the negative stuff, and just be able to play my game. Tonight, like I said, I had two good games of practice and I wasn't really focused on anything else that was going on."
Beyond that, Hamidou Diallo broke out of a slump, making his first three-pointer to spark an 12-point effort.
"I gave Hami a hug in front of the team. They gave him a standing ovation," Calipari said. "You know, it's been hard, and I wasn't going to kick him to the curb. I wasn't going to throw him under the bus. It's been hard."
Kentucky’s defense bothered Missouri into a couple of lengthy first-half droughts and held the Tigers to 38 percent shooting. The Wildcats used Vanderbilt’s boards to beat Missouri 36-32 on the glass.
Green finished with 12 points, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 12 and P.J. Washington 12.
And pretty dramatically, a Kentucky team that couldn’t seem to beat anybody in conference play a couple of weeks ago now is putting away decent teams with no trouble.
What does it mean?
It means this incredibly young team appears to be playing its best basketball as March approaches.
Where have you heard that before?
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