South Carolina came into Rupp on Saturday, matching Kentucky’s undefeated record in the SEC.
The Gamecocks also matched the intensity of their coach, Frank Martin, whose glare has been used by NASA to cut through diamonds.
What did we learn?
That Kentucky is not nearly as good a team without De’Aaron Fox. The freshman roadrunner hurt his ankle on exactly the kind of play that has been wowing the nation – a slice, a cut and a softie through the nets. The problem was, somewhere between the slice and the cut, he turned his ankle and hobbled off the court.
And he returned for the start of the second half with his foot in a boot.
So we learned that the high-powered Wildcat offense becomes decidedly lower-powered when he’s not on the court. It labors the ball up the court, fiddles around with it on the outside, makes a few passes that amount to very little and ends up with a shot that probably wasn’t in the Kentucky playbook.
Sometimes, it throws an interception. Sometimes, it loses the dribble. Sometimes, it steps on the endline.
A few times, John Calipari played a big frontcourt of Bam Adebayo, Wenyan Gabriel and Derek Willis. It wasn’t too bad. They were the team’s three leading scorers behind Malik Monk’s 27 points.
But Monk has got to be the guy – especially when the Cats are mired in a half-court offense, the way they were for much of the South Carolina game, missing the guy who usually drives your transition offense, in high gear and his foot to the floor.
The ball in Isaiah Briscoe’s and Dominique Hawkins’ hands didn’t have the snap, crackle and pop. It slowed up. And when it slows up, you need a guy who can get his shots off and get to the rim. That’s why Monk is leading the SEC in scoring. It’s not just shooting 3s.
Willis and Gabriel helped out. But Briscoe did not. He took only two shots against South Carolina, got not a single free throw attempt, scored zero points. It’s only the second time in his 15 games this season that he missed double figures. The last time, he scored eight against Louisville.
This time, he didn’t even make single figures.
He also turned the ball over seven times.
As I’m writing this, I don’t know how serious Fox’s injury is, or how many games he might miss. The Tennessee game was Tuesday night, in Knoxville, always a tough place for the Cats to play. Calipari might have held Fox out of that one, giving him plenty of time to heal and making sure he’s feeling fine and rested when Kansas comes to town on Saturday. The Battle of the Blue Bloods. More than 4,400 wins, combined. Eleven national championships.
Big Blue Nation wants to protect its undefeated SEC season. The fans want to see the Cats improve their national ranking with a revenge win over Kansas. The Jayhawks won the rivalry a year ago, in Lawrence. That game was Kansas’ revenge for a loss to Kentucky – when was it?? – oh yeah, on April 2, 2012, in New Orleans. For the national championship.
That wasn’t a gratuitous reminder of Kentucky’s eighth NCAA title. It was a serious reminder that Calipari never cares much about SEC games during the season. He doesn’t much care about the SEC tournament. He doesn’t much care about mid-season marquee matchups against Michigan State and UCLA, Louisville and Kansas.
He cares because he hates to lose. He cares because he wants his young teams improving and showing they can handle pressure.
But what he particularly cares about are the games that begin when they toss the ball up in mid-March. It’s then that he hopes Fox will be healthy, Briscoe back at the top of his game, turnovers minimized, lazy defensive fouls disappearing, the ball going into Bam, everyone crashing the boards.
And he hopes nobody forgets that Malik Monk is the guy who has carried the team and put the points on the board, the guy nobody can forget.
It took the Fox-less offense two and a half minutes into the second half before Monk touched the ball. Hawkins shot. Briscoe shot. Gabriel shot. Adabayo went to the line a couple of times.
South Carolina trailed by four, at 17:42, when Monk took – and made – his first shot of the second half.
That can’t happen against Duke or Villanova, Kansas or UCLA, in March. Not if BBN wants to see Calipari cali-purring. VT