PARADISE ISLAND, the Bahamas– The biggest question for Kentucky now is no longer whether they can be a national championship contender, but rather how good they can be in March.
This team has length, athleticism and shooters. It may be the quickest Kentucky team of the John Calipari era and these Cats don’t take plays off defensively.
The top-ranked Cats (7-0) may be young, with six scholarship freshmen, but they have extreme talent, grasp concepts quickly, share the ball and have been all in from the beginning. They rebound, push it out and are a one pass team to the rim.
I don’t know if these top-ranked, unbeaten Cats are better than the 2012 national championship team or the team that was 38-0 before they lost to Wisconsin in the national semi-finals two years ago. But they are rapidly turning into something special.
Kentucky pressed its foot on the accelerator again last night, racing to a 115-65 victory over Arizona State here at the Imperial Ball room at the Atlantis Resort. It was the third consecutive game the Cats scored more than 100 and it was as frighteningly impressive to watch.
“As a competitor, I’m a little shell shocked right now,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley admitted. “I was hoping we’re be a little more competitive. We’re in the second year of a process. I hope we learn something from this. I thought they were spectacular. I talked to our staff afterwards. I don’t think I’ve seen a faster team in my years coaching. How relentless they are, the way they shoot the basketball, how they get up and down the floor. It’s a credit to how they’re coached the and athletes they have. It seems like they play the right way for each other.
“It’s amazing how quickly the game moved. We haven’t seen anything like that. We can’t simulate that. If anyone was watching the game, I’m sure they feel that team has a chance to go the distance.”
Freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox had a triple double for the Cats with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists– only the second time in the history of this storied program that’s happened since Chris Mills did it in 1988. “That was almost 10 years before I was born,” Fox admitted. “That shows you how hard it is to get a triple double. There are a lot of great guys who have played here, who have won national championships.”
Fox, a McDonald’s All American from Cypress Lakes High School in Houston, has a chance to follow in the footsteps of John Wall, Calipari’s first great point guard at Kentucky who was a one and done in 2010. But he is not the only player on this team with a high ceiling. All five Kentucky starters scored in double figures. Freshman guard Malik Monk scored 23 points. Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe had 20 on 7-of-9 shooting with seven assists and 6-10, 260 pound freshman man child Bam Adebayo powered his way to 12 points and nine rebounds. And 6-9 freshman forward Wenyen Gabriel finished with 10 points and seven rebounds.
“Everyone on this team has gotten better,” Calipari admitted. “Dominique Hawkins, our backup point guard, has 22 assists and two turnovers. That’s outrageous. We don’t turn the ball over. My question now is how do I take this team to another level. We came down here. Had two hour and 15 minute practices. We got after it. This team competes. I have to do less drills because that hour and 15 was intense. They’re learning. They’re talking Guys are diving on the floor after loose balls. You sitting there watching it. What in the world?”
Kentucky can’t play much better than it did against Arizona State. The Cats shot 53 percent and had 33 assists on 44 field goals. They completely neutralized the Sun Devils (4-3) inside defensively with nine blocked shots, forcing them into a an three point team that had to hurry most of its shots because they were so concerned about Kentucky’s quickness and ability to close out on shots.
Kentucky has been dominant in all seven of its victories, winning by an average of 30 points. The Cats’ closest margin of victory was a 21 point win over Michigan State in the Champions Classic at the Garden two weeks ago. The Cats’ largest lead against Arizona State was 83-40 after a spectacular dunk by Gabriel and they crossed the 100 mark with 4:46 to play before Hall of Fame coach John Calipari emptied the bench.
The Cats have yet to be challenged. That might change Saturday when Kentucky plays UCLA, a team that can play at their pace, in Rupp. It may happen when the Cats play North Carolina Dec. 17 in Vegas.
“One the things I told the guys before the game tonight was we need to have a close game,” Calipari said. “We need to an overtime. We need to have a game where a team makes its first 10 shots and see how we respond. We need to have a game where we shoot 32 percent and still win. We need to be in tough physical battles and see how we respond. That’s what our season is about; We just want to learn. Tonight, we learned that if we really guard on defense and fly, we’re really under selfish. Now, you become really hard to beat.”.