By Ashley Scoby
If you didn’t watch the Kentucky-South Carolina game on Saturday, let’s play a game. I feed you a couple stat lines from Columbia, S.C., and you guess if the game was close.
Ready? Here we go.
Willie Cauley-Stein had more fouls (three) than points (two) or blocks (one). Karl-Anthony Towns scored four points and pulled down a single rebound.
Andrew Harrison was 1-for-5 from the field; his brother Aaron was 4-for-11.
So, with four of Kentucky’s five starters playing like that, what would you have said happened?
Surely “a 15-point victory on the road” wasn’t your answer, but it’s what went down in Columbia, as UK rolled to a 19-0 record off a 58-43 win over the Gamecocks.
And Kentucky’s bench, led by its freshmen guards? That happened. Defense? That happened, too.
The Wildcats didn’t pull away into a double-digit lead until the second half, but its freshman tandem of Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis made its impact early. Booker, who finished with a team-high 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, had 11 of those in the first half. And Ulis, who finished with six assists and one turnover, had five of those assists in the first 20 minutes.
The two freshmen guards also combined to make all eight of their free-throw attempts. And of UK’s three made three-pointers, Booker made two of them.
It’s quickly becoming clear that this year’s Kentucky team is a very extreme version of “picking your own poison.”
If a team focuses on attacking Kentucky’s smaller players with quick guard play, then Towns and Cauley-Stein are up for big nights. If Cauley-Stein is sitting, Marcus Lee suddenly pops up out of nowhere and goes on a 6-0 run, like he did against Vanderbilt this week.
If you focus on playing a physical game and trying to take away Towns or Johnson, then Booker and the Harrison twins will make their shots. If Andrew Harrison is struggling, Ulis certainly suffices as a backup point guard. Even big men Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles are hitting jump shots.
So what does it take to beat this team?
Plenty of pundits and coaches have said that it would take a team having an out-of-its-mind shooting night, combined with Kentucky missing its own shots for a loss to happen.
But how likely is it that a team will have one of those shooting nights against this historically good defense? South Carolina only made four field goals in the second half Saturday. So while Kentucky wasn’t exactly lighting it on fire from behind its own arc (the Wildcats made only three three-pointers), it didn’t matter because the Gamecocks were having such trouble scoring.
Kentucky blocked nine shots against South Carolina, continuing its defensive dominance inside the paint this season. Teams expend so much energy trying to score that it makes it close to impossible to figure out which Wildcats to stop.
The Gamecocks certainly did a good job stopping Kentucky’s starters from having much of an impact. But when Kentucky has the bench that it does this year?
That’s when you get a 15-point win on the road even when half your team plays poorly on the offensive end. And that’s how you continue an undefeated streak.
Ashley Scoby is a senior journalism major at the University of Kentucky and a KyForward sports writer. She has reported on the Wildcats for wildcathoops.com, vaughtsviews.com andkysportsreport.com as well as for newspapers in Danville and Glasgow. She will begin a summer internship with Sports Illustrated magazine in New York this June.