Big Blue Haitian

Skal tries to block a shot attempt by LSU's Antonio Blakeney.  Skal had 18 points 6 blocks and 9 boards. Photo by Victoria Graff

Skal tries to block a shot attempt by LSU’s Antonio Blakeney. Skal had 18 points 6 blocks and 9 boards. 

I’ve waited all season to use that headline. But by the finale on Saturday, it was not just some gimmicky phrase-making; it was a key to a very big season-ending win and perhaps the key to unlock another significant post-season.

We’ve become used to the strengths (and warts) of this team: Tyler Ulis’ control of every aspect of the game, Jamal Murray’s ability to score, Alex Poythress’ athleticism around the basket, Marcus Lee’s vertical leaping, Derrick Willis’ sweet perimeter shooting, Isaiah Briscoe’s determination to drive the baseline and finish what he had started.

But when we thought about Skal Labissiere, it was mostly about his disappointments. So highly touted coming in, he had become dismissed by Kentucky fans for his skinny frame, his soft hands, his weak rebounding, his inability to finish around the basket, his disappearing when other teams put a big body on him.

We knew he could shoot, so his 18 points against LSU were not a huge surprise. What was impressive was his confidence to catch and shoot. Also, he became the defensive force he was supposed to be, the latest in the line of Calipari shot-blockers, from Anthony Davis to Nerlens Noel to Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. And he grabbed some rebounds, controlled the boards, vintage Julius Randle.

In his last two outings, he’s played 34 minutes, scored 29, pulled down 17 rebounds and blocked seven shots. Not a bad night’s work.

So does that mean Kentucky has put all questions behind it as it enters another set of post-season tournaments? Probably not. Every game will still stand as a test of the team’s progress, another bunch of questions to be answered as to whether all these individual parts have finally, at long last, come together to create an effective, winning whole.

Skal Labissiere dunks the ball for 2 of his 7 points. He had 7 boards vs GA.

Skal Labissiere dunks the ball for 2 of his 7 points. He had 7 boards vs GA.

If Skal were to suddenly miss those silky jump shots that swished through the strings against LSU, would he become again the face of disappointment that surfaced with each of Kentucky’s eight losses this year?

If Briscoe misses some key free throws down the stretch, if Willis’ jump shots hit iron instead of net, if Lee’s minutes are limited by fouls, if Poythress shrinks against teams with tall, muscular front courts, would Kentucky go from promising contenders to suspected pretenders?

If circumstances require the Wildcats to depend too much on bench play from Dominique Wilkins, Charles Matthews, Isaac Humphries and Mychal Mulder, would it expose the team’s lack of real depth?

Will another big man (Wayne Selden, Tyler Davis, Damian Jones, John Egbunu) expose Kentucky’s weak inside game?

But then there are the factors that UK fans could sit back and comfortably depend on all season: the smart, savvy running of the offense by Ulis, the incredible ability of Murray to find – and make – his shots. What if one or both of those factors came up missing in action?

Murray has had off-nights, though not in a very long time. Not since late January, when he scored just 11 in a route of Missouri, followed two nights later by 15 in that anguishing overtime loss to Kansas.

Ulis has had nights lately when his shots weren’t falling, and nights when (I believe) fatigue hampered some of his execution late in close-game losses to Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

Remember, from here on out, there are no tomorrows, no more “we’ll get back in the gym and work on those things.”

The thing that concerns me about this team is that it depends so much on outside shooting, whether from Murray, Willis, Ulis and, now, Skal. Outside shooting can mysteriously disappear. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that of all of Calipari’s Final Four teams, the 2012 champions were least dependent on shooting. The inside work of Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could make up for any slumps by Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. This team lacks that muscle, at both ends of the court.

Still, the teasing emergence of Skal and the return of Willis can only hearten Big Blue Nation’s hopes going into the second season. Skal’s 18 points against LSU show that Kentucky maybe has that third offensive weapon that was missing for so much of the season. Teams cannot have three men hounding Murray around the court anymore; Skal will make them use some of their resources to pay attention to him. And so, of course, will Willis.

Other teams now know the two shooters can hurt them. And that opens up the court for Ulis, which opens up every possibility for this Kentucky team. VT


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