(Photos courtesy: UK/SEC)
The LSU loss is but a bitter memory and all is right with the Big Blue Nation – at least for now – after a 92-77 win over a Georgia team that was stickier than southern molasses for a while. It’s a score you might have expected with a certain former Bulldog running the show against his former team.
But Sahvir Wheeler didn’t dress, thanks to the neck injury he suffered in Baton Rouge, one that had to have made thousands of Kentucky fans watching the game on TV cringe when the SEC Network shared the video of UGA coach Tom Crean hugging his onetime player – around the neck.
Wheeler survived but the Dawgs did not, thanks to huge efforts by Oscar Tshiebwe and TyTy Washington. Kentucky’s man in the middle went for a career-high 29 points and 17 rebounds; Washington filled in at the point for Wheeler and merely set UK’s single-game record for assists with 17 (with the same number of points).
It all added up to a pretty snapshot but the bigger picture is still fuzzy, if not completely out of focus.
Parts of it are as crystal clear as a frigid January night. Tshiebwe is a marvel. Beast, machine, call him what you like. He’s a rebounding savant.
Washington is clearly another Kentucky comet – streaking across the sky, bright and insanely hot and destined to be gone too soon. Enjoy the sight while you can.
As seasons go it’s still early. The Wildcats have played only three Southeastern Conference games and John Calipari is still fiddling with is rotation. His roster has seen to that. So far this year he’s had a full hand to play in only a smattering of games, thanks to injuries and illness.
On Saturday evening, it was clear he had his team ready to play – particularly Washington who, after the game, heard Wheeler playfully call him “PG1.” Thats what happens when you pile up dimes. Asked if he’d ever racked up that many helpers, Washington said, “NBA 2K. That’s about it.”
“He’s a play-making guard,” Calipari said. “Whether he brings it up or plays away from the ball, he’s a play-making guard. And he can shoot.”
The shooting was a bonus in the Georgia win. Washington couldn’t exactly play the role of silent assassin with the spotlight directly on him as he directed the Kentucky attack.
He repeated found Tshiebwe inside and set up the perimeter guys, including Davion Mintz, who seems to have re-discovered his shooting eye. “It felt amazing,” he said of his 7-of-10 shooting night, including 5-of-7 from distance and a total of 19 points. “It had to pay off. I’ve been working my tail off every day, every night, getting up extra shots.”
So Tshiebwe dominates in the middle, Kentucky hits 57 percent from the floor (63 percent in the second half) and the Nation celebrates a blowout. It’s clearly a step forward. Any victory is. The question is, how big?
The Dawgs hit 49 percent for the game, 52 percent in the first half. “Give Georgia credit,” Calipari said. “They shot 50 percent. People don’t do that to us.”
But UGA did. It also committed only 13 turnovers and hung with the Cats on the boards, out rebounded just 31-25. It added up to a relative dearth of fast-break opportunities for Kentucky, which tallied just a dozen points in transition to 15 for the visitors.
Calipari said from well before the start of the season that this UK team would be fast, that the Wildcats would be at their best when they ran. They didn’t need a high-octane attack to handle Georgia and the man who serves as either the straw that stirs the drink or the guy who mashes the gas pedal – pick your metaphor – was out injured.
When Wheeler does return, the Cats will have a chance to improve again. Perhaps it will be Tuesday in Nashville, against a Vanderbilt team that upset Arkansas in Fayetteville Tuesday and then gave back whatever ground it had gained by falling to South Carolina at home Saturday afternoon.
Kentucky figures to be able to out-class the Commodores in Music City before returning to Rupp Arena next Saturday. That’s when the Tennessee Volunteers will come to town, bringing with them another opportunity for the Wildcats to gauge just how much progress they’ve made.
They definitely moved up with the win over the Bulldogs. TyTy and the Big O saw to that.