By Ashley Scoby
If the prospect of a cheat day awaits you on the weekend, you’ll eat your broccoli on Thursdays.
And if the prospect of an off-day awaits this year’s Kentucky basketball team, they turn into a “buzz saw” against unwitting opponents. On Tuesday night, that opponent was Missouri, which Kentucky ripped 86-37, to move to 16-0 this season and 3-0 in conference play.
Before their Christmas holiday, the Wildcats mustered up 40 minutes of constant energy and lockdown defense to embarrass UCLA, 83-44.
“They went nuts,” head coach John Calipari said of that performance, which happened after he had dangled the off-day carrot in front of his team.
So Calipari did it again – telling the Wildcats that if they came out with sustained energy against Missouri on Tuesday they would get Wednesday off. His team came through – holding Missouri to 27 percent shooting, including 1 for 18 from behind the arc. Not to mention Kentucky won by 49 points.
Cue the Calipari Evil Grin.
“Now, I took that back and I said, ‘We are practicing tomorrow,’” Calipari said after the victory. “But I did say that prior to the game.”
Alas, the Wildcats will practice Wednesday. But the prospect of not doing so created a defensive performance reminiscent of non-conference Kentucky – the team that kept holding teams to 18-point halves and 30 percent field-goal shooting. The team that didn’t need an overtime or two to get past opponents – as they have in the past two games against Mississippi and Texas A&M.
The Tigers’ 37 points were the fewest that Kentucky has allowed to an SEC opponent since 1987, when Mississippi State scored 36.
The potential of an off-day wasn’t the only wrinkle Kentucky used in its favor: Calipari also made a brief return to the platoon system, starting Dominique Hawkins with the “Blue” platoon (including regular starters Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns).
Although Calipari liberally substituted for his post players on Tuesday, and didn’t stick to a true five-in-five-out platooning system, Kentucky did play with a regular 10-man rotation for the first time since Alex Poythress went down with a knee injury.
Hawkins took the opportunity and played well enough to where he said he thought he deserved another start, although Calipari was coy about what lineups he would try in the next game. Hawkins finished with six points, three assists, two steals and a block in 20 minutes. His defensive pressure on Missouri’s guards was also significant, and a solid reason why he even got the start in the first place.
“Being able to guard Andrew and Tyler in practice, I feel like that helps me out a lot,” he said. “When I’m playing another team’s point guard, I feel like it’s easier for me to contain them because (with) Tyler (Ulis), he’s so quick, he helps me out (with) trying to stay in front of a quick guy. And Andrew – he’s so big; he’s helping me stand up when they get me in the paint and be strong and be able to body them up.”
Hawkins’ in-your-face defense was mirrored by the rest of the team. Missouri briefly hung tight with Kentucky in the opening minutes, playing to a 14-10 game at the 13:14 mark of the first half.
“I thought that their defense forced us to panic a little bit offensively, and we were on our heels,” said Missouri head coach Kim Anderson.
After being down 14-10, the Tigers only scored two points in the next 8:57. Meanwhile, the Wildcats rolled off 10-0 and 8-0 runs to accumulate a 32-14 lead with 4:17 until halftime.
“They played a buzz saw today,” Calipari said.
And it was one that didn’t stop buzzing into the second half. A 44-18 halftime lead for Kentucky ballooned to a 36-point margin with 11:26 to play, after Ulis dished to Trey Lyles for a jumper that made it 67-31.
Three Wildcats scored in double figures to add to the carnage – Aaron Harrison with 16 (including 5-7 from behind the arc), Willie Cauley-Stein with 13 and Karl-Anthony Towns with 12 (and 10 rebounds).