By: Dick Gabriel
Sitting in Rupp Arena, watching the Wildcats play.
Are they… Is that… Could it be… they’re smiling?
They were. This team the Big Blue Nation passionately roots for as an entity but seems to abhor individually, dissected the same Missouri team that slapped them hard and then slapped them again in Columbia three weeks ago. And had fun doing it.
They came out early with deflections, blocked shots and stout defense and celebrated each other’s victories on each possession.
The Tigers fell behind early, made an 8-0 run and nagged the Wildcats to a 26-26 draw. Then Kentucky had more fun, knocking down some of the 10 triples the Cats buried on the night. Yes, that WAS Hamidou Diallo, draining two of them, in addition to a savage dunk he threw down after stripping Jontay Porter of the basketball.
Fun, fun, fun.
“It was definitely fun, I think it was a big dunk,” Diallo said. “To be honest, I don’t remember my last dunk. It was definitely big.”
Just a few minutes before chatting with the media, Diallo had been on the receiving end of a hug from his coach and a standing ovation from his teammates in the UK locker room.
He deserved it.
It’s not that his numbers were jarring – 11 points, 3-of-3 from beyond the arc, zero turnovers in 25 minutes – it’s that they came from a guy who had been in the worst slump of his career. A player UK fans lobbied to see in a limited role last season, who had toyed with entering the NBA draft, had slid to the brink of irrelevance.
“I wasn’t going to kick him to the curb,” said Calipari, who nevertheless had to find a way to work around Diallo’s troubles while he settled on a new rotation.
While this team still ardently needs Kevin Knox muscling his way for points and Diallo in transition, its offensive muster clearly has to begin with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“I looked at the guys and I said, Who is our best player?” Calipari said. “This is about three, four weeks ago. Who is our best player? Shai, it ain’t even close.”
No, it ain’t. And he showed it again Saturday night, going for 14 points, five rebounds, eight assists and only one turnover in 36 minutes.
He also knocked down 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, part of his team’s 10-of-16 from downtown. Life is so much sweeter in Basketball Land when shots are falling. And when they weren’t going in, there was Jarred Vanderbilt, snatching the rebounds – three on offense, a mighty dozen on defense for a total of 15 in only 27 minutes.
It was Vanderbilt’s return, with the live-wire energy he brings, that gave Kentucky fans hope, even though they may have lost sight of it as they wrestled with the agony of a four-game losing skid.
The Wildcats seem to have put that behind them now but there is still so much more work to do, starting with the guy who makes out the starting lineup and decides who plays when. But, just as his youngsters seem to be figuring it out, so is he. The fun is back in the playing AND the coaching.
“I’m not fighting everybody,” Calipari said. “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.”
Now that they all seem to be going in the right direction, it’s a little bit easier – both on Calipari and the beleaguered fans.
And it’s a lot more fun.