No-name defense? No. 1 Kentucky stymies Gamecocks in road rout

Freshman Devin Booker (team-high 18 points) connected on 6 of 9 field goals against South Carolina -- including a triple that capped Kentucky's 14-0 spurt midway through the game.

Troy Taormina

COLUMBIA, S.C. — This isn’t the most talented team in Kentucky basketball history. Not by a long shot.

Heck, it’s not even the best Wildcats squad of this decade — a distinction that likely belongs to the national champions from 2012.

But none of that matters in the present. Not with an undefeated squad that values substance over style, production over flash, team unity over individual fame. Not when the Wildcats possess more depth (and length) than any team they’ve faced to date. And not when these well-rested UK athletes — all blue-chippers coming out of high school — are fully invested on the defensive end.

The above factors rang true on Saturday, as No. 1 Kentucky suffocated South Carolina on the road 58-43, a defensive gem that entailed eight steals, nine blocks and the Wildcats holding the Gamecocks to just 23-percent shooting from the field (12 baskets in all).

To wit, Saturday marked the seventh time this season that Kentucky (19-0, 6-0 in SEC) has held an opponent to 45 points or less.

"We’re not a team that tries to trick anybody. That’s not what we do here," said Kentucky head coach John Calipari after the victory, reflecting on his primary desire to play straight man-to-man defense against the Gamecocks, after toying with the notion of a 2-3 zone early in the game.

The action was intense and physical from the outset, with South Carolina (10-8, 1-5) feeding off the sellout crowd at Colonial Life Arena. The Gamecocks and Wildcats largely traded baskets for the first 12 minutes, but that trend would dissipate in the remaining stages of the half.

Down 23-17, South Carolina quickly tacked on seven straight points, highlighted by Sindarius Thornwell’s three-pointer — giving the Gamecocks their final lead of the afternoon.

After that, UK spurted to 11 consecutive points to close the half. Throw in Devin Booker’s triple just 90 seconds into the re-start … and you have a sustained rally (14-0) that killed South Carolina’s hopes of knocking off Kentucky at home — just like last year.

"There was a surge (during that period)," acknowledged Calipari, matter-of-factly. He then added: "It was a physical game, and some of our guys struggled with that. It’s a good lesson for us: You play them … before they play you."

(Gamecocks coach Frank Martin offered a similar analogy saying, "Sometimes, the bear gets you; and sometimes, you get the bear. Today, the bear got us.")

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Forget about the high number of McDonald’s All-Americans on the Wildcats’ roster. They’re still an anonymous bunch … especially this late into college season.

How do we know this to be true? If you live in Atlanta or Boston or Denver or Seattle … quick, name four players on this current Kentucky team — without mentioning the omnipresent and downright affable Coach Cal. And if it should help, go ahead and use the lone Wildcat who’s already been mentioned in this piece. (Hint: He was Saturday’s highest scorer.)

Can’t do it, right?

The general sporting populace may loosely recall Kentucky having a pair of twins (Aaron and Andrew Harrison) and a lanky shot-blocker who has seemingly been wearing Big Blue for six years now (junior Willie Cauley-Stein); but that’s about it. And this is from a stacked club that, according to the reputable site NBADraft.net, currently hails freshmen Karl Anthony-Towns (5th overall) and Trey Lyles (8th) as top-10 draftees in June.

Yes, in this high-tech, eminently accessible age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube or Vine videos, it’s surreal that an iconic basketball program like Kentucky could be the college-basketball equivalent of a chart-topping pop-music band (think Earth, Wind and Fire or Kool & The Gang during their heydays) or world-renowned traveling circus … and yet, very few of the principals could be identified amid the general public — minus a blue hoops jersey.

Take a peek at Saturday’s box score:

**The freshman Booker (team-high 18 points) and Aaron Harrison (13 points) were the only Wildcats to attempt more than five shots from the field.

**Center Dakari Johnson (three points, six rebounds) was the only UK player to collect more than five boards.

**Marcus Lee (four blocks) and the aforementioned Lyles — two assets with immense physical upside down the road — combined for only eight points and four rebounds in 35 minutes of action.

**Cauley-Stein (two points) never got into an offensive or defensive rhythm, after sitting much of the first half with foul trouble.

And yet, Kentucky continually crushes opponents with ease (last four games: average victory margin of 23.5 points), thanks to a max-level defensive intensity that can only be matched by No. 2 Virginia.

"The effort they’re playing with is crazy," says Calipari of his team. "We’re still not where we want to be, but we’re moving in the right direction."

South Carolina’s Martin echoed that sentiment: "It’s hard to beat anybody, let alone the number 1 team in the country, when you shoot (23) percent. … At the end of the first half, we got away from our thought process on offense. When you start attacking off the first or second pass, you’ve got no chance (against Kentucky)."

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There’s a certain ambivalence that comes with watching Kentucky: On one hand, this team has enough depth and soul-crushing defense to execute the path of perfection heading into the Big Dance — like Indiana in 1975/76, UNLV in 1991 and Wichita State last year.

On the flip side, there are certain lapses which could harm Kentucky in a one-and-done tourney environment.

On this day, Calipari lamented two bones of contention: ‘3’ … as in the total number of Kentucky offensive rebounds, and ’18’ … as in the number of offensive boards for South Carolina.

"Three offensive rebounds? Think about that, we’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country," said Calipari, blissfully aware of South Carolina’s 40-28 edge in total rebounds, as well.

The reasoning for the shortfall? South Carolina was willing to mix it up and fight for every missed shot. "If you accept getting blocked out, you’re going to get (only) three offensive rebounds," says Calipari.

Which brings us to this: Only two top-tier programs can match Kentucky’s special blend of size, depth and athleticism: No. 3 Gonzaga (18-1 heading into Saturday) and No. 7 Arizona (16-2 entering the day).

For everyone else, the recipe for victory against the top-ranked Wildcats must involve two perimeter-based necessities:

1) Drain a minimum of 10 three-pointers (the Gamecocks made only three).

2) Commit less than 10 turnovers (South Carolina had 12) against a ball-hawking Kentucky team that loves to defend beyond the arc and funnel hapless penetrators into a wall of imposing rim-protectors.

Otherwise, no one on the Wildcats’ regular-season schedule has a chance to beat ’em before the NCAA tournament launches in mid-March.

"We’re still working; I feel this (19-0 start) is the just the beginning for us," says Booker, who has now cracked the 15-point mark seven times this season. "It’s not about (getting revenge against South Carolina) from last year. Our (veterans) came back (to college) for a bigger reason."

In other words, Booker and Co. would be absolutely fine with being Kentucky’s ninth national champion … even if they’re not the best of that bunch, too.