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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach John Calipari knew how well his team played in a 86-52 rout at South Carolina Saturday. Even Calipari couldnâ€™t dispute South Carolina coach Darrin Hornâ€™s obvious claim that UKâ€ˆâ€œlooked like the number one team in the countryâ€ with the Catsâ€™ most lopsided Southeastern Conference win of the season.
Calipari said it was â€œabsolutelyâ€ the best his team had played and that all of his major contributors had productive games.
But before anyone wants to put UKâ€ˆin New Orleans for the Final Four, Calipari issued a mild reminder after the game about the rest of Kentuckyâ€™s schedule.
He noted that his team has played North Carolina, Louisville, Indiana and Kansas, all highly ranked teams at the time, but now will face Florida twice, Vanderbilt twice and Mississippi State during its final seven games.
â€œAll those teams can beat us,â€ said Calipari.
Heâ€™s right. Heâ€™s also correct that he will â€œfind out who we areâ€ during the SEC finish. â€ˆHowever, what he might have already learned based on the last four games is that Kentucky is better than good. Itâ€™s very, very good and the Cats are probably more capable of beating all those teams than any one team is of beating Kentucky.
Against South Carolina, Kentucky shot 51.6 percent (32-for-62) from the field and 76.2 percent at the foul line (16-for-21). From 3-point range, it was 42.9 percent (6-for-14) as Doron Lamb went 3-for-3 and reserve Kyle Wiltjer 2-for-4. UK won the rebounding battle 41-30 and had just three turnovers. Thatâ€™s right. Only three turnovers in the game.
Then there were the 10 blocked shots, including eight by do-it-all Anthony Davis who broke Shaquille Oâ€™Nealâ€™s SEC freshman record for blocks. Davis now has 116.
Why has Kentucky, which is 23-1, gone from a good team to a dominant team in recent games?
â€œWe are getting better. We are starting three freshman folks, two sophomores and a freshman off the bench, so we are young. Everything is new to these guys,â€ Calipari said. â€œThey are sharing the ball, 17 assists. Terrence Jones had four assists and no turnovers. I mean, they are sharing the ball.
â€œNow all of the sudden the guy they throw it to can score. Every guy can score a basket and like I said South Carolina hit us on a bad day because this is as good as we get up to this point, and hopefully we will get better.
â€œBeing unselfish is one thing but when the guy you are being unselfish with can really score, it does different things. Whoever you throw to can score baskets. You saw Kyle Wiltjer. Get him the ball when he is open and he will make baskets. That is what makes this unique. What makes it hard is if they call can score, so they all want to score yet they are sacrificing for teammates and that makes this even more powerful. They are just sharing the ball.â€
Jones deserves credit for UKâ€™s recent surge, too. Heâ€™s become more physical and assertive. He had 16 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block. It should be obvious now that his mid-December finger injury bothered him more than many, maybe including Calipari, wanted to believe.
But what is most impressive is his attitude. He has his smile back. His swagger is back. Yes, he will pose or flex for the TV cameras, but thatâ€™s part of him having fun.â€ˆHeâ€™s not belittling an opponent as much as that is his way to enjoy the moment.
â€œEverybody began the game with a lot of energy and that carried over to our offense from our defense,â€ Jones said after the game. â€œWe got steals and that led to easy points.â€
He says it was not that difficult to want to continue to play well even with the big lead.
â€œIt was real difficult when it comes to caring about scoring, but not when it comes to executing and getting other guys going who have been sacrificing all year for us. It feels good to get them points and get them in the game,â€â€ˆJones said.
Again. Team-first, not me-first.
Same with Davis, who continues to show heâ€™s the best player in the country. He had 22 points, including eight dunks, along with eight rebounds and two steals to go with his eight blocks. He played only 28 minutes and probably would have easily had his triple-double if he had played more. Calipari did put him back in the game late, then immediately second-guessed himself for letting his staff talk him into that when Davis took a hard fall.
Davis said it was â€œscaryâ€ when he fell, but he had no regrets about missing the triple-double.
â€œI am just going out and having fun. Iâ€ˆdidnâ€™t even know I was that close until somebody on the bench and other people told me,â€ Davis said.
Thatâ€™s the attitude a star player must have on a championship team, and Davis has it. Better yet, all his teammates seem to be the same way. Thatâ€™s why Calipari noted after the game that even though he would say Davis could be the nationâ€™s best player, it would not surprise him if Davis picked teammates Jones or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
â€œWe have a good team and he is doing what he does. He is just doing his job. Like Marquis Teague. Only four points, but it did not matter. He ran the team and that is why we played this way,â€ Calipari said Saturday. â€œ Terrence being physical and making free throws. Darius (Miller) had three assists at halftime. Doron starts the game making shots. All of a sudden stuff changes and we are a very good team.â€
If the recent improvement continues, the good could turn into great. But thatâ€™s what the games against Florida, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State will help determine in the next four weeks.