On Tuesday evening, the University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball Team defeated the South Carolina Gamecocks 76-48 to move to 19-3 on the season, 8-1 in the SEC. Once again, defense was the order of the day as head coach John Calipari’s charges clamped down, limiting the Gamecocks to 35.8% (19-53) on overall FG and 29.4% (5-17) on 3FG. The most glaring observation for the game was that the Wildcats out-toughed the Gamecocks.
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin, the man of the many death stares and glares, provided high praise for Kentucky after the game. When asked about Kentucky’s amazing rebounding margin (50-27), Martin responded that the Cats were simply tougher. Martin: “Rebounding demonstrates our lack of physicality.” For a coach and a program for which toughness has been a calling card, praise from Martin had to be music to Calipari’s ears. And not just Coach Cal, but for the entire Big Blue Nation.
The opening night 34 point loss to Duke left everyone associated Kentucky Basketball searching for answers. The biggest question hovering over the team has been: are these Cats tough enough to reach a Final Four and compete for a championship? What’s clear now is that this team isn’t the same team that loss to the Blue Devils in Indianapolis. This team has nine players that contribute. This team has at least five playmakers that can go for 20 on a given night. This team has an identity and it starts with defense. And this team is tough.
PJ Washington has been lights out over the last three weeks and scored a game high 20 points against South Carolina. Reid Travis notched 11 points and 9 rebounds and battled USC star Chris Silva to the point where Cal said Travis had to take IV fluids after the game. Keldon Johnson went for 9 points and grabbed 6 rebounds with Tyler Herro adding 11 points of his own. The Wildcat star of the game was freshman EJ Montgomery.
Montgomery exploded on Tuesday with the best game of his young Wildcat career, finishing with 11 points and 13 rebounds despite accruing 4 personal fouls. EJ led a Kentucky bench that proved to be too much for South Carolina. Nick Richards had 4 points and 4 rebounds in 11 minutes. Jemarl Baker shot 2-3 from the field to score 5 points and Immanuel Quickley dished out 4 assists. Just when some folks were questioning what the Kentucky bench could do, the second unit showed just how valuable they can be.
John Calipari is known for his version of Coach Speak where he repeats the same lines, “I like my team,” or makes nonsensical assertions about who’s pooping ice cream. If you look at what he does year in and year out, it’s time that we appreciate the job he does on an annual basis. Every season, he gets a team of highly recruited players to sacrifice personal glory for the team, which is no easy feat. This year specifically, he’s brought a team that was woefully poor on defense early in the year and made them one of the most formidable defensive teams in the country. A season that seemed all but lost after the Duke debacle is once again in the top 5 and is a legitimate threat to reach the Final Four.
There’s certainly a lot of basketball left to be played. The Cats are going to have to up their individual and collective games if the BBN is going to celebrate NCAA title number 9. The good news is this team is getting better. These young men are buying into the vision that Coach Cal is selling and it’s time that the BBN buys in and realizes that Calipari’s “missing” mojo is back.