Hot shots: No. 1 Kentucky back to unbeatable with SEC routs
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Considered vulnerable after needing overtime to win its first two conference games, top-ranked Kentucky appears to have reclaimed its edge following dominant wins over Missouri and Alabama.
The Wildcats (17-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) will aim to keep it going against struggling Vanderbilt on Tuesday night.
Kentucky’s hot shooting and strong defense have keyed consecutive routs of the Tigers and Crimson Tide by a combined 71 points. The Wildcats have shot 48 percent or better in consecutive games and held both squads to a combined of 6 of 36 (17 percent) from behind the arc.
Those efforts have contributed to the program’s fourth-best start ever. The Wildcats’ goal: maintaining that roll against the Commodores (11-6, 1-3), who have lost three straight since beating Auburn on Jan. 6.
Kentucky forward Trey Lyles said opening SEC play with narrow escapes of Mississippi and Texas A&M have taught the Wildcats not to take anything for granted, despite theirs and Vanderbilt’s opposite trajectories.
”I think we just came out with a lack of energy offensively and defensively, and it showed in how we played and how teams played against us,” Lyles said Monday. ”The last couple of games we’ve picked it up, definitely.”
Offense has been the obvious bright spot for Kentucky, which has made 50 of 102 from the field (49 percent) and 16 of 35 from 3-point range (46 percent).
No Wildcat has hotter hands right now than guard Devin Booker, who was named the SEC’s top freshman for the second straight week and third time overall. Booker is 20 of 28 from long range the past seven games, including 3-for-6 with a team-high 13 points in Saturday’s 70-48 win at Alabama.
”It’s a confidence thing,” Kentucky assistant coach John Robic said of Booker’s shooting. ”He has that going, he has been in that gym every day and he is getting rewarded by it and our team is. When you put in that work, you see results, and that’s what he is doing.”
Robic, standing in Monday for coach John Calipari, also credited the Wildcats’ improved defense for making things possible on offense. Alabama shot 44 percent, but was 5 of 18 from 3-point range, got outrebounded 19-13 defensively and committed 15 turnovers leading to 17 points.
Calipari’s first victory in Tuscaloosa with Kentucky followed the home-court 49-point annihilation of Missouri, during which they held the Tigers to 27 percent shooting and grabbed 19 more rebounds.
”Our whole attitude has changed for real,” sophomore forward Derek Willis said. ”We’ve beaten top-10 teams by like 30, 40 points and we come in and just think we’re going to get a win. Now our whole attitude has gone back to `We just want to (beat) people.’ "
And right now, Vanderbilt just wants to beat anybody.
The very young Commodores have dropped consecutive games to Georgia and Mississippi State by three points each after losing to No. 23 Arkansas by double-digits.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has been trying to keep players’ confidence up, but acknowledges that they face a tough challenge in a self-assured Kentucky team.
”I’m hopeful that that’s not something I have to worry about, but their defense is truly amazing,” he said. ”Hopefully, it doesn’t happen where our confidence is dinged any more than it already is.”