I think a major point in the game was overlooked down the stretch, when Kentucky pulled away from pesky Auburn.
As everyone talked about Wenyen Gabriel’s 16 rebounds and Malik Monk’s highlight-reel tomahawk dunk, De’Aaron Fox’s and Isaiah Briscoe’s foul trouble, Mychal Mulder’s and Dominique Hawkins’ contributions off the bench and John Calipari’s ongoing frustrations with his 15-2 team following a 20-point win, nobody was talking much about Bam Adebayo.
But Auburn players knew. Trying to drive to the basket, they kept running into Bam, defending, clogging the middle, blocking shots. Bam hasn’t been a shot-blocker in the Anthony Davis-Nerlens Noel-Willie Cauley-Stein mode – not yet, anyway – but he’s beginning to assert himself at both ends of the court.
Gabriel played a high-octane game Saturday, but one reason he got his 16 rebounds is that Bam forced misses and cleared out the middle for Gabriel to track down the balls.
The Cats are still not building their offense around the big guy, but when he does get the ball inside, he displays what massive skills he has. He’s developing the moves and the footwork to get position under or near the basket. And when he does, he’s unstoppable. When you’re driving on I-71 and a 16-wheeler looms up behind you, you meekly hit your signal and change lanes. You don’t stay in its way.
Kentucky went from mercury early in the game to molasses when De’Aaron Fox spent time on the bench in foul trouble. It still seems to me to be an offense without a purpose or a plan, bailed out by the fabulous athleticism of its three guards. Maybe that, in and of itself, is a formula for April success, but it’s taking a big chance.
The team got a huge jolt of energy from Hawkins and Mulder. Hawkins is steady and experienced. But it’s Mulder who comes in with a furious confidence that feels so refreshing. He loves to shoot and he does it well. He’s active on the boards and on the fast breaks. I suppose he may have his flaws on defense, but that may be the price Calipari will have to pay for the next three and a half months.
Cal’s issues with a young team are disconcerting. For one thing, when hasn’t he had a young team? That’s the Faustian bargain he continues to make, smiling and posing with his departing freshmen on draft night while out there bringing in the next brigade of five-star lottery picks. That’s the cookbook recipe for Young Team Casserole.
His best teams have included a mix of veteran play – Patrick Patterson, Darius Miller, Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrisons, Alex Poythress, Tyler Ulis – but he has that again this year with Briscoe. And while the freshman talent has generally glittered, it’s glittering no less this time. Kara Lawson called Fox and Monk the greatest freshman backcourt in college basketball history. That’s not fool’s gold or fake diamonds.
Has Cal gotten crankier with age? Or is this team less-disciplined and less-coachable than, say, the Wall-Counsins-Bledsoe group; or Knight and Jones; or Davis, Teague and Kidd-Gilchrist; or Towns, Lyles, Booker and Ulis?
Who doesn’t remember Cal screaming at DeMarcus Cousins and Terrence Jones, and even at Karl-Anthony Towns?
It seems to be getting late into the season for Cal to have so many issues with simple fundamentals, like not fouling foolishly or taking ill-advised shots. Yes, he smiled last season about the bad-shot impulses of Jamal Murray. But one sensed that he was clinging to a life raft then, that this was a team not really going anywhere and that its best chance for any kind of tournament success rested with Murray going off on his explosive bursts – even if that meant ridiculous shots that, on a bad night, looked even more ridiculous.
This team, on the other hand, has most of the ingredients for another Final Four run. So why are they, as he says, “not empowered?” Why is he calling every offensive trip down the floor, as he said he had to do against Vanderbilt and Auburn? Why does every foul or turnover result in the five Wildcats on the floor looking immediately at the Kentucky bench? For approval? For criticism? For screaming? For a hook yanking them out of the game?
Is that what a young team does? Is that what freshmen, who had been supremely confident playing their own high school games, have to do as they learn, grow and mature at the next level?
If so, it’s the hand Calipari always deals himself – but one he usually plays pretty well. VT