If there’s one person in this town who doesn’t REALLY need to win the lottery, it’s John Calipari. He did that the day Mitch Barnhart offered him the head coaching job at Kentucky. But he bought tickets, anyway.
Not for himself, mind you. For his players – one for each. It was one of those coaching life lessons. And he made sure to tell them their odds were 292.2 million-to-one. He also told them, “You already own a ticket – you. It may be 50-50 that you’re going to hit the lottery, 70-30. But you’ve got to fight. You’ve got to want it. You have a ticket.”
The lottery to which he was referring wasn’t the Powerball, or even Megamillions. He was trying to make his players understand that if they play basketball the right way, their skills can take them a long way – skills that weren’t fully on display Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.
In Baton Rouge, the Kentucky big men never showed up and LSU dumped the Wildcats. In Tuscaloosa, the big guys came to play and the Cats rolled Alabama.
Against Mississippi State, it was all about the guards. Because the contribution by the bigs, once again, was small.
Kentucky’s backcourt sizzled early and then had to fight off the Bulldogs as the Wildcats survived a late MSU threat and won it, 80-74.
The failure of Kentucky’s big men to show up again clearly irritated Calipari, who wouldn’t entertain questions about it after the game. “Ask him,” he told a questioner who barely had spoken half a sentence, presumably about Alex Poythress. “He’ll be out here. Next question.”
Trouble was, Poythress was not one of the players selected to speak with the media, so for now, at least, his latest disappearing act will remain a mystery.
The three Wildcats who did emerge from the locker room and enter the media scrum were the guards who essentially won the game for Kentucky: Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. And Ulis didn’t shy away from the topic of the sub-standard performance by UK’s front-liners.
“We just have to play hard,” he said. “Everybody has to play hard and give it their all. It’s not about shooting the ball well or any of that. It’s just coming out with no energy and not playing hard.”
Ulis tried to pick up the slack for his teammates, pouring in 21 points and adding five assists. His favorite target at times was Briscoe who, in the absence of a consistent low-post presence, became Kentucky’s go-to guy inside.
“We put him behind the zone because we couldn’t get anybody with size back there that had any confidence to score the ball,” Calipari said. “So we put him under the basket. You dudes are afraid? We’ll go to him and he got behind the basket and scored.”
Fourteen points, in fact, on 7-of-9 shooting from the field, along with four rebounds and five assists – most of the damage coming in the land of the giants.
“When I’m running the baseline, I just think, ‘Layup, layup, layup,’ “ Briscoe said. “I just try to find the opening. I’m sure Tyler and Jamal will make the easy play.”
Ulis constantly looked for him Tuesday night. “He’s not the biggest guy but he’s crafty around the rim,” Ulis said. “He can see the floor really well. When I see him in the middle or down low I try to feed him because I know he’s going to make something happen.”
No matter how large the defenders might be. “I’ve got a big heart,” Briscoe said. “That’s all it takes.”
That kind of passion was absent from other parts of the floor for the Wildcats.
Kentucky guards accounted for 20 of UK’s first 22 points as the Cats bolted to an early 22-10 lead by hitting nine of the their first 16 shots. Murray turned in his second straight game that featured a quick start, pouring in 11 first-half points (he matched that total in the second half).
But just as suddenly they went cold, missing their next eight as the Bulldogs heated up, draining five straight shots, pulling to within 27-25
And then a big man actually got involved in the scoring.
Briscoe, who’d spent the first half penetrating the Dogs’ 2-3 zone, took the ball, flashed to the baseline, drawing the defense away from the middle – and from Skal Labissiere. Briscoe whipped a pass to the gangly freshman, who threw down a rim-rattling dunk they probably felt in Port-Au-Prince.
Kentucky was up 29-25, on its way to another double-digit lead. And it was another big man actually doing some damage again.
This time, it was Derek Willis, who drained a three-pointer to make it 32-25 with 2:20 left.
On Kentucky’s last possession of the half, Willis was alone in the left corner and Mychal Mulder tried to oblige, floating a pass that might still be in orbit had Willis not skied and somehow hauled it in, and then in one motion passed it to a teammate.
Willis got it back and buried a triple. Cats up, 39-28 with 15 seconds left. The Rupp Arena crowd would have buzzed all the way to the concession stands were it not for MSU’s precocious freshman, Malik Newman, who lost Murray on a pick and buried a splay-legged three-pointer at the buzzer.
Kentucky led 39-31 in a game that had blowout smeared all over it early.
And it did once again, with 14:26 to play, Kentucky racing off to a 53-33 lead. But here came State again, outscoring the Cats 38-21 over the next 13 minutes, which included a dust-up that led to double technical fouls. By the time the officials had studied the replays, assessed the fouls and administered the free throws, momentum had shifted and the Wildcats had gone cold.
“I don’t know what happened,” said State coach Ben Howland, “but I know our guys were inspired by it.”
MSU chipped away, hitting shot after shot. The Bulldogs let the Wildcats hit 50.9 percent of their field goals, but State was even more accurate, nailing 52.9 percent. It allowed them to come roaring back.
Kentucky (13-3, 3-1 SEC) went without a field goal over the game’s final four minutes, but the Wildcats did drain eight straight free throws, including four by Poythress.
“I thought Alex… down the stretch showed a lot of courage,” Calipari said. “There were things that he did. But in the guts of that game, he was not a factor and when you’re that good, you need to be a factor.”
In 31 minutes Poythress scored eight points (1-of-4 from the floor) and grabbed eight rebounds. Marcus Lee ran into foul trouble again, playing only 24 minutes before fouling out with two points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots.
Fortunately for the Big Blue Nation, the guards were money Tuesday night. Not that they were worried about it during the game.
“When I’m in the game I don’t think of stuff like that,” Briscoe said. “I don’t know the bigs played bad. It’s a team effort. I just look at it as a team effort. We came out with the win.”
Said Ulis, “We don’t think that way, we just come out and play. We gotta get our bigs to fight every game.”
Ulis mentioned the 25 points Poythress hung on Alabama last Saturday. “When Alex fights,” he said, “he’s unstoppable. Once we get everybody fighting, every game, we’ll be a really good team.”