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Keith Taylor: Hitting its stride, UK puts together best effort of the year in 82-48 rout of Georgia


A month ago, developing an offensive scheme was a top priority for John Calipari.

The Kentucky coach spent most of his time coming up with a suitable offense to fit the team’s personnel. The players had to change, the coaches had to change and a complete makeover ensued after the Wildcats (18-6, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) split two of their first four games in the Southeastern Conference.

 Kentucky limited Georgia to a season-low 48 points Tuesday night (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky limited Georgia to a season-low 48 points Tuesday night (UK Athletics Photo)

“I thought our offense a month ago was just pitiful,” the Kentucky coach said following the Wildcats’ 82-48 win over Georgia Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. “We spent most of our time trying to figure out, how does this team need to play?”

Calipari and his staff figured out that Derek Willis was more useful on the court than sitting on the bench, where he had spent the past two seasons cheering on two teams that reached the Final Four. Although Willis wasn’t active on the court, behind the scenes he was building silent confidence playing against a crop of first-round draft picks in practice.

In the win over the Bulldogs, Willis knocked down three 3-pointers, scored 11 points, including a thunderous dunk and grabbed six rebounds as the Wildcats improved to 14-0 at home this season.

Unlike the one-and-done trek many players have taken in Calipari’s seven seasons at Kentucky, Willis just waited his turn and has responded, one reason why the Wildcats didn’t collapse following the five-point letdown at Auburn last month.

“He’s like on a normal path,” Calipari said. “His path is like the normal path. And everybody is like, ‘wow, he’s still here?’ What? You know, and I’m just happy for him.”

BOXSCORE: Kentucky 82, Georgia 48

The offensive adjustment, mainly the emergence of Willis, has given the Wildcats another scoring weapon, further creating more opportunities for point guard Tyler Ulis and sharp-shooter Jamal Murray. In the past two games, Murray has made 14 shots from long range, while Ulis has dished out 19 assists.

Georgia, which leads the conference and ranks sixth in the nation in field goal percentage, didn’t little to disrupt Kentucky’s offense. The Wildcats shot 52 percent from the field and were 10-of-21 from behind the arc.

“I think they’re playing their very best basketball,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “We thought they played very good against Florida and obviously today they were much better than us.”

Although not perfect and still in search of a consistent post presence, Calipari shifted gears from offense to defense last month and has devoted most of his practice time recently to defending the opposition.

“We’re back playing defense and if you walked in our practice, you’re not seeing us play much offense,” Calipari said. “We’re really working on our team defense, the ability to fight through a possession, to finish off a possession, to scramble, to not only play your man, play one more, the stuff we normally teach here.”

Although the defensive improvement has been noticeable in the past two games, Calipari started changing the team’s focus following a 90-84 overtime loss at Kansas. The emphasis on defense intensified after the Wildcats blew a 21-point lead in an 84-77 loss at Tennessee last week.

“We’ve been fighting,” Murray said. “We’ve been playing together more and trusting each other more on defense. That’s our biggest thing. We just communicate a lot more and been focusing a lot. It’s coming down to talking. We all know what we’re doing, we all know where we’re supposed to be so if somebody’s not there we just rotate. We’re doing a great job of playing team defensive basketball.”

In the past two games, Kentucky has held its opponents to less than 61 points and limited the Bulldogs to their lowest offensive output of the season. Georgia went 17:57 without scoring a basket and missed 22 straight to close out the first half and to open the second half, as the Wildcats built a lead that never got less than 30 points in the second half.

“I think our defense – we’ve been focusing on – has just helped us,” Willis said. “It just showed.”

Calipari was pleased with the performance of his team on both ends of the court against the Bulldogs, perhaps the team’s most complete game of the year to date.

“I thought overall, the way we shot the ball, the way we moved the ball (was good),” Calipari said. “It was a good effort and one of our better efforts this year.”

Notes

* For the second straight game, senior Alex Poythress sat out because of a knee injury. Calipari said Poythress will be out for “about two weeks.”

* Murray has scored at least 20 points in nine games this season and completed his 22nd straight double-figure game.

* Ulis became the first player since Roger Hardin (1985-86) to record at least four assists in 17 straight games.

* Skal Labissiere had seven rebounds, the first time he’s led the Wildcats in rebounding this season.

Game tracker: Kentucky at South Carolina, noon, Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com


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