Wildcats’ run came out of the blue
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Let’s put it this way, if Kentucky continues to play as it did Saturday night against Iowa State, Ashley Judd and a few million or so of her closest Big Blue Nation friends will be smiling broadly sometime around midnight on Monday, April 2.
“Cal came up to me and told me that was the best game they had played all year,’’ Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said of Kentucky counterpart John Calipari. “He said, ‘We can’t play any better than that.’ ’’
They could for 40 minutes, perhaps, but not for the 9 1/2 minutes of the second half in which they outscored the Cyclones, 34-10, during which they transformed a tie game at 42 into a plus-24 at 76-52, and also during which they held Iowa State without a field goal for a stretch of 7:42.
It was a frightening display of all-around basketball might and expertise, initiated by a suffocating defense and augmented by superb transition offense and deadly long-range marksmanship. Kentucky finished with 10-for-20 3-point shooting, thanks to a 6-for-7 second half.
No one - no one - will beat Kentucky when it shoots like that.
“We’re one of the best in the country [at shooting threes],’’ said Calipari. “But we don’t shoot them a lot. We can get to the rim. That’s our game. It’s not like we need to make 10 threes in a game in order to win. We don’t play that way.’’
Except that on this occasion, they did.
Shooting can come and go, as we all know. That wasn’t what pleased Coach Cal the most.
“I’m proud of all these guys,’’ he said. “The way they played, the way they competed on every possession, was really special.’’
After 36 games you might think the Wildcats had nothing new to offer, but you would be mistaken. For this was the night freshman point guard Marquis Teague may have had his true coming-out party. Often cited as the team’s potential weak link in its quest for a national championship, the young man from Indianapolis submitted a 24-point, seven-assist game that featured 10-for-14 shooting (nicely fashioned from both midrange and attacking the rim).
His previous scoring high had been 17 against South Carolina on Jan. 7. He had reached 15 only six times. But he was the best player on the floor in the biggest game of the season.
“We have seven players on this team who averaged 25 points a game in high school,’’ said Calipari, “and they come out here and they take 11 shots a game. He scored 25 a game in high school. Now, for us, he could score more, but why would you score more on this team as a point guard?’’
“He was the main part of our win,’’ said senior - and, yes, Kentucky under Cal is allowed to have a senior on occasion - Darius Miller, who had 19 points. “He not only scored a lot, he got other people involved, myself included. He put guys in the right place on the floor. When he needed to score, he did that, too.’’
At this point we might have a new season record: a Kentucky story approximately half over that has not yet mentioned Anthony Davis. So let’s rectify that, lest I be tossed out of the basketball writers’ union.
As usual, the numbers (15 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 official blocks) do not begin to tell the full Davis story. To begin with, someone had better tell this stat crew exactly what constitutes a blocked shot, because if he only had two then my name is Stephen King.
The 6-foot-11-inch freshman marvel from Chicago was particularly devastating during a 20-2 run that decided the game. He had two huge blocks, a transition alley-oop dunk on a nice feed from Terrence Jones, and, most impressively, a very nice drop-down pass to a cutting Teague for a layup. You did note that he had five assists, did you not? He can mess with an opponent’s mind in many ways.
Give Iowa State credit for hanging in as long as it did. The Cyclones did so because Kentucky was having a very hard time containing 6-8 forward Royce White (23 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists), who maneuvered around and through the Kentucky defense for five dunks, something, I’m going to assume, no other foe has come close to doing. But once the Wildcats started to roll, he became as helpless to stop them, or to affect the game, as the rest of his teammates.
So Kentucky, now 34-2, moves onto the South Regional in Atlanta, where it will play ancient foe Indiana, the team that hung a last-second, 73-72 defeat on them Dec. 10. Calipari is not looking forward to this matchup because the Hoosiers are coached by his good friend, Tom Crean.
“I cannot stand playing friends,’’ Calipari said. “If you lose, you’re sick after the game. If you win, you can enjoy it, but you can’t enjoy it because you know how he feels.’’
He’s also not looking forward to this matchup because the Hoosiers are pretty good and because he believes that Crean is as good at game preparation as anyone out there.
Then again, he’s not about to trade his roster for any in the land. He’s got a Magnificent Seven who play 90 percent of the minutes, and he says his basic job is to keep them hungry and motivated.
“I want them to have fun playing,’’ Calipari explained. “I want to keep challenging them. I want them to look at this and be happy, but not satisfied.’’
Kentucky clearly has championship talent. Now, the most talent doesn’t always win, but it’s a good start.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.