Kentucky overwhelms Ole Miss, shows why it's still a serious threat
Kentucky has gone from preseason No. 1 to outside of the top 15. But, as Tuesday night showed, the Wildcats are still physically dominate enough to cause problems for anybody.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Marshall Henderson was on his way to missing twice as many shots as he would make, and the Ole Miss bigs were dreadful enough near the rim that their coach later answered a question about whether recruiting is the only way to fix things like this:
"Thank you," Andy Kennedy responded. "You said it."
So, yeah, things were going poorly Tuesday night for the home team here at Tad Smith Coliseum, so poorly that the cardboard cutouts of Henderson's face that were given to fans as they entered the building no longer seemed as funny as they should've seemed. Kentucky, at one point, was up 22 and practicing alley-oops on the Rebels. It was a thrashing, basically from the tip. And yet, somehow, Ole Miss still cut that 22-point lead to six in the final two minutes, at which point the near-capacity crowd stood and yelled for a defensive stop that was necessary to keep the hope of an upset alive.
Then Julius Randle got the ball near the right elbow late in the shot clock.
What was the play?
"It's not a play," Randle said.
But who needs plays when you have Julius Randle on the elbow?
"One of [my assistants] was telling me, 'We gotta get a timeout! We gotta get a timeout!' There were six seconds [left on the shot clock], I looked up and [Randle] caught the ball," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "And my mind quickly said he's either getting fouled or he'll make this. That's how much confidence I have in him."
(That's well-placed confidence, Cal.)
Naturally, Randle powered through two guys and scored on a runner in a way that deflated both the Ole Miss players and fans, and Kentucky went on to win easily, 84-70. So now the Wildcats are 20-6 overall, 10-3 in the Southeastern Conference, and if you're looking for a reason to still believe Calipari's team can make a third Final Four in the past five years, your reason should be rooted in that play that wasn't really a play at all.
Why should you still believe in UK?
Because the Wildcats can still physically overwhelm most teams.
They don't shoot it all that well, they don't bring it all of the time, and they still have a habit of losing focus in ways that keep Calipari literally yelling and stomping on the sideline. He gets so mad. But UK still has more physically overwhelming players than any other team in the country, and that means almost everybody is susceptible to being physically overwhelmed regardless of the ranking beside their name today, tomorrow or next month.
Randle, of course, is the most physically overwhelming of the bunch.
He finished with 25 points and 13 rebounds in 29 minutes against Ole Miss, mostly while playing beside Willie Cauley-Stein, who got eight points, six rebounds and three blocks. Afterward, Aaron Harrison was asked why the Wildcats were able to dominate Ole Miss on the boards. The freshman guard answered in the most simple and honest way possible.
"Julius," Harrison said. "And Willie."
And that's basically what it came down to here. Kentucky had Julius and Willie, and Ole Miss didn't. And though there are several teams that can compete more favorably with the Wildcats in the frontcourt, there's still no other team besides Kentucky starting a projected lottery pick at power forward and a projected lottery pick in the middle, and that's something worth remembering when the NCAA tournament tips next month.
I don't know if UK will get a great seed because UK is going to lack quality wins.
I don't know if UK will avoid an upset because UK still inexplicably coasts from time to time.
But one thing I do know is that this group of players that comprises what Calipari regularly calls the "youngest team in the country" will forever be capable of flipping a switch, and when the Wildcats flip that switch they're awfully hard to deal with. Why? Because they're so physically overwhelming at multiple positions that they don't have to run plays and execute perfectly to score, and they don't have to be fundamentally sound all of the time, either.
They just have to play -- hard and together, consistently.
That's really all it'll take for them to beat most people they play going forward.
"We can do this every game," Randle said after the 14-point road win that doubled as the Rebels' first home loss in SEC play. "We just have to keep building chemistry, keep playing hard, playing with energy and having fun out there ... and the results will show."
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