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When UK head coach John Calipari told reporters it would be hard for him to imagine his team “up 20 on anybody” following a 10-point win versus Tennessee, he acknowledged he was beginning to accept the fact that his current Wildcats may not blowout any opponents.
Four days later, his team threw a wrinkle into Calipari’s newfound acceptance.
Not only did the Wildcats compile a 20-point lead versus Auburn Saturday, they led by as many as 27 points and finished the game with a 22-point margin of victory.
But was Saturday’s blowout win a turning point for the young Wildcats or a fluke?
“I definitely feel we’ve turned the corner to the right direction,” said freshman forward Nerlens Noel. “That was a good win for our league and just beating them by that much. Definitely know we’re capable of it and especially with the execution down the stretch.”
While UK head coach John Calipari didn’t go as far as to call the Auburn win a “turning point,” he was undoubtedly happy with his team’s effort.
“Team’s making progress, and that’s all I can ask,” he said.
Before the win versus Auburn, UK had beaten just three BCS conference schools on the season — Maryland, Vanderbilt and Tennessee — and those victories had come by an average of five points.
UK’s previous largest lead of the season came when the Wildcats were up 16 on Vanderbilt with 16:27 left in the second half, but that lead soon evaporated thanks to an 18-0 run by the Commodores.
Against Tennessee, UK’s only double-digit lead came when the final basket was scored with 14 seconds left on the clock. The Wildcats led by as many as 15 points against Maryland, but they also saw that lead erased thanks to a second-half run by the Terrapins.
The Wildcats led by no more than eight and any point in the team’s five losses.
With that track record, even Calipari was a little surprised as his team extending a big lead in the second half versus Auburn and not letting the Tigers back in the game.
“It was hard to imagine,” he said. “The best thing was, everybody says, ‘Man, they showed emotion, they chest bumped.’ Well, when you’re playing harder than the other guy, when you’re beating them to loose balls, when you’re coming up with tough rebounds, you chest bump.
“It’s hard to chest bump when you’re getting sand kicked in you’re face, you’re getting thrown to the floor and they’re grabbing balls out of your hands.”
At least one player agreed with that theory.
“When you’re hitting shots, it’s a lot easier to have fun than when you’re missing shots or they’re going on a run,” said junior guard Jarrod Polson. “I think just the fact that we were kind of pounding them in the second half made it a lot of fun for us.”
UK’s first chance to show if the Auburn game was a turning point or fluke comes Tuesday at Alabama.
The Crimson Tide are 11-6 on the season and tied with UK in third place in the Southeastern Conference with a 3-1 record.
Alabama junior guard Trevor Releford ranks No. 6 in the SEC with a 16.2 points per game average, and sophomore guard Trevor Lacey leads the conference withe a 45.5 three-point field goal percentage.
“Their guard play is a as good as anybody in the country right now,” Calipari said. “Both guys are scoring the ball. Releford’s really scoring the ball as of late, and Trevor can shoot it with anybody. They still have (Andrew) Steele. Their guard play is why they’re 3-1.”
As Alabama typically starts four guards, the Wildcats appear to have a distinct size advantage, even if freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein is forced to miss a second consecutive game after a minor procedure on his left knee last week.
“For most of the games that we play in conference play we’re undersized,” Alabama head coach Anthony Grant said on the SEC coaches teleconference. “So, I think for us it’s just about making sure that we bring a competitiveness to the court to try to match the size and the speeed and the physicality they can put on the court as well.”
“This is a guard’s game,” Calipari said. “This is going to be guards going at one another.”
Calipari pointed to freshman guard Archie Goodwin and sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow as players who made statements with their games versus Auburn, especially in the second half.
The Wildcats will likely need more of the same from them Tuesday.
“I think Archie Goodwin played the best game he’s played all year,” Calipari said. “Why? Because he didn’t take eight bad shots.”
Even if the guard play is where he wants it to be, Calipari is not predicting another blowout Tuesday.
“This is a hard game,” he said. “This is a really physically grind-it, bump you, grab you kind of team. If you’re not ready for 50-50 balls and that you’re going to be in a war on the court for 40 minutes…You’ve got to relish it. That’s what you want, but if you don’t want that, then it’s an issue.”
Whether the current Wildcats can carry their newfound ability to earn a big lead then prevent an opponent from coming back from Auburn into the rest of SEC play remains to be seen, but players think Saturday’s game shows they may continue to prove Calipari’s doubt in their big-lead ability wrong.
“Maybe it’s not some of the teams he’s had before where they’ve just blown everybody out, but at the same time we think we’re good,” Polson said. “When we hit shots, it’s kind of easy to make those runs.”