There was a sense of foreboding going into South Carolinaâ€™s Colonial Life Arena last week.
Mark Krebs, on KSTV sounded the reminder that Kentucky had gone in there almost exactly six years ago with a 19-0 record, a number one ranking, and a phone call from President Obama.
Krebs was there, a senior guard watching from the Jarrod Polson seat on the bench.
He saw Kentucky run into a buzzsaw named Devan Downey that day.
Downey, all of 5â€™9â€, zipped in, around and through Kentuckyâ€™s defense, throwing up all sorts of shots, hitting most of them, and scoring 30 in a 68-62 UK loss. It was one of the most devastating losses of the John Calipari era here, though, unfortunately, not the last for that team. (Who remembers the name Joe Mazzulla of West Virginia?)
Last year, in more recent memory, the Cats went into Columbia and were shredded 72-67. South Carolina was in last place in the conference, on its way to a 12-19 season. Calipari was ejected from the game. The Cats slipped from 17th in the polls to 25th. (Thatâ€™s bordering on NIT territory.) It was the fourth loss in six SEC games, and a 19-point loss to Florida was coming up. It sent Big Blue Nation into a Deep Blue Funk. For a while anyway. (Who remembers the name Aaron Harrison?)
Saturday was a different team, different year, but still a concern. The place was jammed, the noise level and energy were sky high, and the Gamecocks took a 24-23 lead at 4:31 of the first half. But they had no Devan Downey this time. Kentucky applied the clampdown, Carolina didnâ€™t score again in the half and never got within 10 points for the rest of the game. In fact, Carolina scored only 19 more points in the remaining 24Â½ minutes.
This is a different Kentucky team;Â deeper than in 2010, more experienced than in 2011, much more disciplined than in 2013, more versatile than in 2014.
Better than 2012? That remains to be seen.
So why the hand-wringing? Why was one of the headlines in the next morningâ€™s Courier-Journal: â€œWhatâ€™s Wrong with Andrew Harrison?â€ Why does his coach always seem to be going out of his way to praise the point guard, asserting heâ€™s one of the best in the country?
Honestly, how badly could he be playing? This team is 19 and zero! How many games has Harrison bungled with his â€˜turnover-prone sloppiness,â€™ his â€˜consistently poor shooting,â€™ his â€˜lack of aggressiveness,â€™ his â€˜inattention to the game,â€™ his â€˜refusal to listen,â€™ his â€˜selfishness,â€™ his â€˜poor defense,â€™ his â€˜rotten free throw percentage,â€™ his â€˜complete lack of dependability?â€™
Answer: None. We must be talking about a different point guard. Because this one is none of those things in guiding a team that has not yet lost a game.
There are just 200 minutes of playing time to distribute among 8-10 players. This is a team that ordinarily scores around 60 points, gets maybe 30 rebounds and 12-15 assists. The result is that rarely will anyone have a huge statistical breakout game. And whenever someone does step up, someone else seems to step back.
Over and over again, weâ€™ve gone back and forth between praising Dakari Johnson and burying him. The same for Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Aaron Harrison, even Willie Cauley-Stein and Tyler Ulis, the two who are most uniformly praised.
Nobody seems to play evenly well, game-to-game. Devin Booker comes the closest.
Thatâ€™s partly the beauty of a team like this. Thereâ€™s always somebody on this endless bench to step forward.
So itâ€™s nice to have a Tyler Ulis come in to give Andrew Harrison a breather. Kentucky hasnâ€™t had that luxury in the past few years. But Ulis has occasionally been out-muscled by bigger opponents. And while heâ€™s quick to the basket, he can be pushed off his route. At which point, itâ€™s nice to have an Andrew Harrison come in to give Tyler Ulis a break.
Enjoy the embarrassment of riches, Cats fans. Donâ€™t whine about them. Who knows when it will be Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow again?
Speaking of riches, add a new name to Kentuckyâ€™s future. Tai Wynyard is a 6-9 power forward from New Zealand. Wynyardâ€™s parents are both world champion competitive wood-choppers. (Perhaps a first for UK.) He plays on the New Zealand national team â€“ called the Tall Blacks.
Letâ€™s hope he never took any money for that. We donâ€™t need to go through that again.