Was It Ever in Doubt? Nah!

Photo by Donna Gray.

Photo by Donna Gray.

I’ve always said that the team that wins deserves the win. (With a shout out, last weekend, to Michigan, Penn State and the Cubs.)

So, thank some leprechauns, if you’d like, for a game you might insist Kentucky was “lucky to win.”

Blame some comfortably reliable targets. There were a few: Stephen Johnson, for not protecting the ball yet again; Mark Stoops, for some reason going for two points early in the third quarter to try tying a 14-12 game – it failed, making all that last-minute suspense necessary; Dorian Baker, for (been there, done that) dropping a sure touchdown pass in the end zone; and the officials, for failing to call a couple of penalties on Mississippi State that got even my dog screaming at the set. (He has little tolerance for mailmen, UPS drivers and incompetent referees.)

But Kentucky did what it had to do in this, the biggest win of the Stoops Era.

And that is pretty amazing, considering that this 4-3 bunch seemed, just a few weeks ago, fated for something like a 2-10 season. It was looking like a team that would keep finding a way to lose.

Stoops may have turned the corner this month as a college head football coach. And Kentucky may have stepped up a rung or two on the respectability ladder.

Not to get complacent. (What UK football fan ever enjoys complacency?) The Cats still have to be nervous, going forward, about their passing game. Several key injuries still have to be sorted out. Landon Young? Denzil Ware? Jojo Kemp? And this is still a program that has to put its previous season meltdowns in the attic and forget about them.

Next week comes Missouri, 2-5, losers to Middle Tennessee State 51-45. In other words, beatable.

But I sense this UK team believes in itself, on both sides of the line. Austin MacGinnis seems finally to be healthy, all-SEC-level again. And it has two of the most efficient ball-carriers in the conference.

I discovered last week that Benny Snell Jr. is actually a cousin of another tough, gritty ball-carrier. I saw Matt Snell punish Big Ten teams for three years in the early-mid-1960s as a fullback alongside Paul Warfield in the Ohio State backfield. Joe Namath got all the publicity for the Jets’ Super Bowl upset in 1969, but Snell carried the ball 30 times for 121 hard yards to seal the 16-7 win. He was the game’s real MVP.

I’m just saying, Benny Snell Jr. – like all good racehorses – has the requisite bloodline.

Roundballs in the air

Speaking of impressive bloodlines, what we saw on Friday – and yes, it was just a scrimmage – was another extraordinary array of Kentucky basketball talent.

De’Aaron Fox looks like the second coming of John Wall. Isaiah Briscoe has clearly upped his offensive game as well as his confidence. Malik Monk, who would be the star on 97 percent of college basketball teams, almost faded into the background during the Blue-White Scrimmage were it not for a couple of memorable dunks.

In other words, another John Calipari team that is backcourt-loaded. However, so was last year’s team. But despite Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis, the team underperformed all season, right up to a second round exit from the tournament, because of lack of a power game inside.

This club seems much more balanced than last year’s. (Although, in mid-October a year ago, we were all convinced that Skal Labissiere would be a dominant game-changer.) But balance is only an asset if it’s used. Right now, Kentucky has three guards who are all highly comfortable with the ball. They all see the path to the rim as their own personal autobahn – no speed limits, no stop signs, shift into high gear and pedal to the metal.

Which is fine, it’s the essence of Cal’s beloved dribble-drive, but only if it involves everyone else on the floor. And not just alley-oops to Bam but also inside-out kicks to the perimeter, to maximize the shooting talents of Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, maybe Sacha Killeya-Jones and, interestingly, Mychal Mulder (who looked, based on the scrimmage – and yes, it was just a scrimmage – as if he has carved a place for himself).

Of course, if we see it, Cal sees it. Bringing brash young guards into some form of a disciplined game has been his challenge almost his entire college coaching career.

In the meantime, I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to watch De’Aaron Fox for an entire season. VT