Today’s blowout is brought to you by the number “4.”
As in, the number usually associated in basketball with the power forward position. On this Kentucky team, it’s the position shared by Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis and to Rick Barnes, it represented the portal
to victory for the Tennessee Volunteers.
“We felt it was really important in our game plan not to let Willis or Gabriel get going,” Barnes said. “We were willing to let the other players pretty much do what they had done. Adebayo, Fox, Monk do what they do. We just didn’t want that fourth guy to really step in there.”
He was right. Not letting the Kentucky “fours” get comfy WAS the key but things didn’t go quite right for the Orange Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, which was a big reason the Wildcats were able to re-boot the Volunteers back to Knoxville, victims of a vengeful 83-58 beat-down.
“I think it was the ball movement,” Willis said. “You’re open, you hit the shot and it opens up the game for everyone. It’s just basketball.”
It was a great brand of basketball for Willis, who drained 4-of-5 in the first period as the Wildcats built a 47-32 halftime lead.
“We go back to our game at Knoxville,” Barnes said, referring to Tennessee’s 82-80 victory that saw UK’s power forwards combine for six points in 50 total minutes. “(Willis) and Gabriel were nonfactors and we talked about it all week. That’s what we can’t allow happen and we let it happen. Give them credit.”
John Calipari did. “Derek Willis was ridiculous,“ he said.
The UK coach said he expected open looks against Tennessee which, he explained, likes to collapse its defense. “It’s how they play,” he said. “You’re going to have to make shots.”
Kentucky did just that, hitting 10-of-18 bombs in the first half.
When Willis wasn’t open, Malik Monk was, sinking 4-of-7 from outside en route to 16 before recess, as he and Willis together nearly matched the Vols’ point total.
Once again, evidence of Calipari’s “re-boot” was easy to spot. The Wildcats made it a point to think, “pass first,” which is why they were able to get so many open looks against the Volunteer defense.
“There’s been plenty of times people have been wide open and then they passed it one more and then that dude’s even more open,” Willis said. “It’s just how you play basketball.”
Well, in theory. That’s how the Cats played back in December, racking up assist-to-turnover ratios similar to the one Tuesday night (32 buckets on 17 assists, only six turns).
Somehow, that got away from them until recently.
“This is still a work in progress,” Calipari said. “I’m going to say it again, it took us three weeks to get to where we were. If you look at our stats the last five games, we were atrocious. I think now it gave me an idea of what I needed to do with them.”
Whatever it was, it worked, in different ways each half.
Tennessee did a much better job around the arc in the second period, holding UK to just 1-of-7. Monk had only two more field goals and Willis, just one. But when the basketball gods close one window, driving lanes open up.
De’Aaron Fox went to work on both ends of the floor, turning a pair of steals into buckets, not to mention six assists and zero turnovers in 32 minutes.
Bam Adebayo finished with only seven points but ripped down 12 rebounds, which didn’t surprise his coach one bit.
“It’s who he should be,” Calipari said. “He should get 12, 15 a game. They’re going to miss 30 shots. Go get 10 of them”
Domique Hawkins chipped in with 10 off the bench. Isaiah Briscoe, who gave up his first-half minutes to Hawkins, thanks to foul trouble, scored 10 of his 12 after intermission.
“I don’t want to be on the bench at all,” Hawkins said. “Never was used to it until I came to college, so I just never want to be on the bench at all.”
It’s been 10 days since the re-boot, Calipari said, and he’s seeing signs that it’s taking hold.
“They’re coming together. They’re understanding that they got to be about each other if we’re to win and then they’re to succeed. They got to be about each other.”
And if all of them – one through five – remember that, March could be a month to remember.