LEXINGTON, Ky. — Obviously something changed. Kentucky went straight from a four-game losing streak that made us question whether these Wildcats would even make the NCAA Tournament into a three-game winning streak so impressive it has visions of Final Fours dancing again.
Kentucky stomped on the gas in the final five minutes against Alabama a week ago, then ran away from Arkansas in the last 13 minutes Tuesday in Fayetteville, all of which built up to Saturday night’s start-to-finish demolition of Missouri at Rupp Arena.
“Right before your eyes, we’re becoming a better basketball team,” coach John Calipari said after an 87-66 victory in which UK led by double digits the entire second half. “It wore me out, but yesterday in practice, at one point I stopped them and said, ‘The reason I’m so relaxed and having fun coaching you: I’m not fighting everybody. It was only a month ago, three weeks ago, half the team it was a fight to get them to play how we’re trying to get them to play.”
So what changed? Calipari noted that Jarred Vanderbilt’s foot injury, which caused him to miss the first 17 games, set Kentucky back and interrupted its chemistry when he returned. He pointed out how it took time to “figure out” freshman star Kevin Knox, who scored 21 on Saturday despite a Yahoo! Sports report on Friday that raised questions about his eligibility.
But that doesn’t feel like the answer to: What changed? How is it that Kentucky (20-9, 9-7 SEC) suddenly seems so much tougher?
“Sometimes you gotta put different guys on the floor,” Calipari said. “Dudes that are out there playing the most minutes are the toughest guys we have.”
Ah, yes, there it is. The Cats’ coach has settled on his five best players the last three games — Quade Green, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox, PJ Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt — and ridden them. That group alone has averaged 68.3 points and 30 rebounds the last three games compared to 69.7 points and 29.3 rebounds for entire opposing teams.
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Point guards Green and Gilgeous-Alexander have combined to average 24.7 points, 10.0 assists and just 2.3 turnovers during this winning streak, while Vanderbilt has emerged as an absolute monster, averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds the last three games. (After a 15-board night against Mizzou, he’s up to 18.9 rebounds per 40 minutes since joining the team in January.)
Knox has become a consistent scorer again — 18-plus in 4 of 5 games — and Washington is at last the “beast of a guy” Caliapri thought he was getting when he signed the muscled-up McDonald’s All-American.
“We sat down, we had a players-only meeting. We didn’t tell none of the coaches, we just went in the locker room and just settled everything,” Knox explained Saturday night. “Right then and there, we said we need to go through certain players, we need to play harder on defense. And you guys can tell, we’re so much better on defense and we’re kind of going through certain players on offense. Keep doing those things and we’ll make this run.”
Kentucky hit 10 of 16 3-pointers against Missouri and had eight more assists than turnovers, neither of which had been strong suits for the Wildcats most of the season.
“This team is different” from all of his previous eight UK teams, Calipari said. “It’s taken me a while, and it’s not their fault. I mean, I’ll say it again: Jarred coming at midseason put us in scramble mode. But this team is playing more like my UMass teams [of the 1990s] than some of my teams here or even my Memphis teams.”
Those Minutemen back in the day were known for leaning heavily on just a few players, like the five Calipari has finally found here this season.
So if Hamidou Diallo occasionally swishes three 3-pointers and throws down a tomahawk dunk — as he did in a slump-busting game Saturday — or Wenyen Gabriel provides bursts of hustle and rebounding or 7-footer Nick Richards rises up for a series of dunks and blocks every now and then, that’s just gravy.
At last, though, the Cats have five guys they can definitely count on to play winning basketball. So what changed?
“It started with Shai,” Calipari said. “Shai comes in at 7 a.m. and works out, shoots, then he would watch video. He never missed a class, never late, never late for a tutor, did everything he was supposed to. And every day when we practice, here he comes, teeth and feet, enthusiastic.
“I looked at the guys and I said, ‘Who is our best player?’ This is about three, four weeks ago. Who is our best player? Shai and it ain’t close. Well, let me tell you what he’s doing. Let me ask you: What are you doing?”
Not long after, Gilgeous-Alexander started having company for early workouts and Calipari started hearing basketballs bouncing in the practice gym outside his office at 10 or 11 p.m.
“This team is beginning to know that we’ve got to do this together,” Calipari said.
That is exactly what it looks like has changed.
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