Lucky to Get Out Alive

The KY Wildcats beat the GA Bulldogs in overtime 90 to 81. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

The KY Wildcats beat the GA Bulldogs in overtime 90 to 81. (Photo by Victoria Graff)

It was probably great to tough out a very gritty win on the road in Georgia.

It was probably great that the three freshmen – Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox – made nine of 10 free throws in the last minute of the game to seal the see-saw, come-from-behind win.

It was probably great that Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins all brought some veteran steadiness again, off the bench.

It was probably great that Bam stayed in the game for 36 minutes, pretty much foul trouble-free.

It was probably okay that, around the nation on Saturday, not only Kentucky was eking out a tight win.

But Georgia’s J.J. Frazier did pretty much what he had to do with his team on his back while the conference’s leading scorer fairly disappeared within the Kentucky offense. (And this after Georgia’s leading scorer and player, Yante Maten, went down just two minutes into the game. Mark Fox has got to be the unluckiest good coach in the country. If you believe in redemption, Fox has an NCAA championship in his future, somewhere.)

In the meantime, Kentucky’s two Wooden candidates made only seven of 25 shots. (In fact, add Isaiah Briscoe, and the starting backcourt production was 11 for 36. That’s not “best backcourt in the country” material.)

John Calipari joked that he said to Briscoe, “I’m glad you fouled out. Now we can win this thing.” Kidding, folks! Briscoe is a bulldog competitor, and you’re never a better team with him off the court. But his 24 minutes and Fox’s 25 gave Hawkins a chance to be on the court for 21 minutes. And the senior didn’t waste his time, playing his usual aggressive on-ball defense and confidently swooping in for shot opportunities.

Also, I think Willis is making a case for the bulk of court time at the four spot. There was a time when he was only making that case if he hit a bunch of 3’s. Against Georgia, he took only one 3 (and made it). He also hit a couple of shots inside. And he grabbed 12 rebounds. Plus, he’s a big body and seems, at least, unruffled as the ball swings around the perimeter.

We’ve heard for two years now about his defensive liabilities. I’m sure that’s true. But there seem to be no better alternatives. The Cats give up straight-line drives when Gabriel’s in the game, and when Mulder’s in the game, and when Humphries is in the game. So perhaps it’s time for Calipari to figure out what his best lineup is for any particular situation and stay with it. The time for object lessons is coming to and end.

There have been times when Gabriel has stepped up. He’s a leaper and full of energy. But he’s thin as a reed and, frankly, he’s a freshman. He makes mistakes. Apart from an occasional 3, he disappears on offense.

Mulder does not disappear. He’ll shoot his 3s anytime, anywhere – probably even during lunch. But he makes enough of them to be a threat. And he’s athletic, aggressive and competitive.

So start Gabriel if you want so you can keep saying “we start four freshmen.” But maybe it’s time to stop making every Derek Willis appearance on the court a tutorial on “here’s what you’re doing wrong.”

Okay, but that was Georgia. In the fast-moving world of college basketball, that was a month and a half ago. The Missouri game has come and gone, too. (And I’m presuming with a W.)

So Florida looms, another chance for a Kentucky team to gain some vengeance on the Gators. It’s happened before – and often as a precursor to a wonderful March for Big Blue Nation.

Cal told the post-game press conference, “We were lucky to get out alive.” He also said, “I love it!” about his team’s toughness, but that got reported less. And if you want some perspective, go to espn.com and listen to Daymeon Fishback and Antoine Walker talk about the coalescing Kentucky identity.

Look, Kansas won by two Saturday, Arizona by eight, West Virginia by nine, Duke by five, Florida by five. Louisville won by four, and Rick Pitino also sounded exasperated after the game – though the Courier-Journal columnist said Pitino didn’t really mean it. “Overstates his concern.”

Other ranked teams squeak out wins and move on. Maybe Louisville was “lucky to get out alive,” too.

Calipari’s Wildcats have shown before that it really isn’t over until…what would we do without Yogi Berra? VT