LEXINGTON, Ky. — That hefty, busy blob of Americans who neglect college basketball until March might want to know that a sliver of the universe has spent recent weeks upturned. That’s how Tennessee could wind up riding up Interstate 75 to Kentucky ranked No. 1 at a smashing 23-1 and in a four-week perch atop the land and also in a flagrant violation of the known two-state cosmos where one (Kentucky) corners the round ball while the other (Tennessee) the oblate. What gall.
Spotting this flouting of the natural order, Kentucky did as Kentucky does. It filled Rupp Arena Saturday night with 24,467 people who made giant splashes of noise, and it filled the floor with five people (at a time) who made great waves of energy. With March still 12 semi-miserable days away, No. 5 Kentucky’s 86-69 win left it at 91-17 against Tennessee in Lexington over these last 109 years and left the college basketball season with a curious set of bookends.
On one end sits Duke’s 118-84 win over Kentucky from Nov. 6, the kind of astonishing sight that can prove hard to shoo from a brain. On the other sits Saturday night and the most thorough domination of a No. 1 team seen in America since way back on Jan. 7, when Clemson made a chew toy of Alabama in that other major-college discipline.
“It shows how much we’ve grown. It shows our potential,” went the words of P.J. Washington, the 6-foot-9 Kentucky sophomore with the considerable frame, the compelling eyes and the giant smile. It showed something else: With the right ingredients and oomph, Kentucky clearly can ride to the Final Four in Minneapolis and clearly could ride right up against Duke, whereupon everyone could recollect the night of Nov. 6 in Indianapolis, with its outlandish scoreboard and plunging jaws.
Plenty of teams have ridden to Final Fours on shoulders less capable than those of Washington, especially as Washington professes to have taken those shoulders and other body parts into the gym with an upgraded frequency. “I’m a lot more in shape. I’ve been running a lot more,” he said. “This year I just tried to change my mind-set, and just work harder. I feel like I’ve been more aggressive on my touches instead of just letting things happen.”
He played for Kentucky last year and then returned this year, which made him already slightly a curiosity given an NBA chockablock with men who can sit around and wade in nostalgia over their single seasons at John Calipari’s Kentucky. He entered the NBA draft, checked out the landscape and headed back to one of the nation’s prettiest landscapes.
Now he has surpassed 20 points in seven of the last eight games following his 23 on Saturday, commanding in his presence while much of the March-minded country waits to meet him again weeks hence. Asked if maybe he’s the best player in the Southeastern Conference, he smiled hugely and said, “Being a competitor that I am, I would have to say yes.” While Calipari has asked out loud for Washington to spare some thought and action for the unsexy rebounding category, the coach in his 10th Kentucky season — how time does gallop — might ask also for the universe to go upturned more often.
When it does, a place like Kentucky can notice the affront and make a night like the one downtown Lexington just conducted. From a flourish of shots from freshman Keldon Johnson near the outset to the 14-0 spurt just after halftime to the uh-oh score of 62-38 with 12:40 left, the place spoke up for February itself and stated that in American burgs here and there and over there and over there, February matters. The home players played as if either insulted or aggrieved by their relatively puny national ranking of No. 5, and called to mind how a coach who recruits NBA-bound talent can live a dreary life of trying novel methods for getting players’ intermittent attention.
“That team was very hungry,” said Tennessee junior guard Admiral Schofield, and Schofield credited Calipari for that.
“That’s what I keep telling these guys,” Calipari said. “Most cases, they’re being evaluated [by scouts or general managers] now. ‘What kind of motor do you have?’ ” At one point he veered off to say Kentucky keeps a murky statistic of attempted rebounds even while he did not say that whoever keeps that stat is, by definition, underpaid. He said, “If you don’t — this is probably hard to understand — if you don’t attempt to rebound, you’re not going to get the rebound. How about that?”
Kentucky out-rebounded Tennessee 39-26 and out-attempted it by some other total.
Such was the energy of this occasion that Grant Williams, the outstanding 6-foot-7 Tennessee junior and the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, got to attempt four shots. He assembled a nice stat line of 14 points, eight rebounds and two assists because he knows very much how to play, but again, he got to attempt four shots. “We really studied our game plan, just trying to force them to make tough shots and make Williams pass the ball,” Washington said.
So the coach of a team that would sit No. 1 for a few more hours, Rick Barnes, got to speak of being “dominated [in] every way you could be dominated,” of his offense being “the most selfish we’ve been all year,” so that: “I told the coaches, ‘I don’t know who I’m looking at, what I’m looking at, where to turn.’ ” And Williams got to use the adjective “soft” and to say, “We needed to be humbled.” And Schofield got to drag out the nouveau phrase “Tennessee tough” and to say essentially that Tennessee tough had not ventured up I-75. And Washington got to say, “They usually bully people so we just tried to go out and bully them.”
And Washington also got to say, “There was one point in the first half I couldn’t hear anything. I was trying to talk to [Ashton Hagans] and I couldn’t hear myself,” later adding, “I was trying to tell Ashton to get over on a screen and I couldn’t even get the words out.” February had mattered, even as the teams will reconvene in Knoxville on March 8, and even as they might reconvene in Nashville (SEC Tournament) a week after that. But then, February often can matter when there’s a universe to restore.