ATLANTA — The men’s Southeastern Conference basketball tournament has been a blueprint of what these Kentucky Wildcats can look like if they approach their over-the-top, preseason hype.
Through two games — Friday’s 85-67 quarterfinal win over LSU, and Saturday’s 70-58 semifinal domination of Georgia — Kentucky has looked like a Final Four contender, even a national championship contender.
We’ll know more about that this afternoon at 3 when the 24-9 Cats challenge everybody’s No. 1, Florida (31-2), for the SEC tournament championship.
And, make no mistake about this: Florida is the best team in college basketball, despite the Gators’ narrow, 56-49, win over vastly improved Tennessee in the other semifinal Saturday.
But, win or lose today, Kentucky now looks like a team loaded for bear.
“We’re not the same team,” UK coach John Calipari after Saturday’s not-as-close-as-it-looked win over Georgia’s game Bulldogs. “We’re not the same team we were two, three weeks ago. It took some stuff and tweaking some stuff, and making us more physical in practice because the games are becoming slugfests again. So you prepare that way.”
Calipari also admitted that his team is playing with considerably more cohesion this weekend. All on the same page. At last.
“They’re just starting to come together,” Calipari said. “It took time. We’re starting five freshmen, folks. Five freshmen trying to do something unique and special.”
The question remains: Is it too late? Can this Kentucky team avoid the early upset bug on the NCAA trail, starting next week, and put the half dozen games together that it takes to win it all?
“We’re now one of those teams that you would hope we would have been two months ago,” Calipari said. “But, so what? It took time. I’m good with it.”
The Wildcats’ improvement is so vast, it’s hard to pinpoint any one key. One of the tweaks Calipari talked about earlier this week is moving the powerful Julius Randle from the block out around the free throw line, giving himself, big men like Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson, along with guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, more room to maneuver.
All of those guys have at the very least approached great in this tournament. Randle had 12 points and 11 rebounds vs. Georgia; Johnson had eight rebounds to go with six points; Aaron Harrison led in scoring with 22 points from his two-guard spot, and his brother Andrew had 12 points, nine assists, five rebounds and three turnovers in 37 minutes.
And when those guys had anything close to a downturn in their production, freshman swing man James Young was there to clean up. Young has regained his shooting eye this weekend, scoring 21 points vs. LSU and 14 vs. Georgia. Young would have scored more against the 19-13 Bulldogs, but he was limited to just six minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.
“We’re spreading it out,” Calipari said of his offense. “I just think when you have James Young and Aaron playing as well as they are at those wings, it makes us a pretty good team.”
Cauley-Stein didn’t put up great numbers Saturday — just three rebounds, no points and three blocked shots — but foul trouble limited him to just 13 minutes.
At least he hustled enough to get fouls. Cauley-Stein was terrific in Friday’s win over LSU.
All of those guys created matchup nightmares for a smallish Georgia bunch. Kentucky out-rebounded the Bulldogs, 36-21.
The Wildcats out-rebounded LSU Friday, 48-32.
Kentucky compounded the problems for both LSU and Georgia by shooting lights out. The Wildcats hit 47.3 percent of their shots against LSU and 51 percent against Georgia.
“One of the things we banked on today is that they wouldn’t shoot the three well, and they made shots,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said of the Wildcats. “That was the difference in the game.”
Fox referred to the Harrison twins, in particular. Aaron was 7 of 10 from the field Saturday, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, and Andrew was 5 of 10.
“I mean, I just knocked down some shots, really,” Aaron said. “My brother got me some great looks, and Julius got me some looks, so I just tried to do what I could today for my team, which is knock down shots.”
So now Kentucky gets the biggest measuring stick of all: A rematch with Florida — a team that has dominated UK and most every other team on its 20-0 march through the conference this winter.
Told that Cauley-Stein said he wants to see the Gators a third time, Calipari replied: “I don’t. I’ve had enough of Florida. What a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job.”