Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy, in assessing and gushing about Kentucky – and boy did he brag about the Wildcats, calling them the best UK team he’s played in his six years at Ole Miss – tried to figure out potential ways a team could beat UK in the aftermath of his team’s 15-point loss.
To reach his hypothesis, he compared Kentucky to the 1991 UNLV team, which came up short in of winning back-to-back national titles despite being widely regarded as one of the best college basketball teams of all-time.
“The only thing that could get in their way was them or foul trouble,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said UK doesn’t have a particularly deep bench, pointing to the production his team got when Anthony Davis went out of the game in the first half with two fouls, but with each passing game, the depth issue is becoming like the rest of the Wildcats’ supposed weaknesses: hollow and overrated.
“If they stay intact and stay focused, which I know Cal is going to mandate, they’re as good as there is in college basketball that I’ve seen,” Kennedy said.
There aren’t a lot of weaknesses with this 26-1 UK team, and depth doesn’t appear to be one after Saturday’s balanced scoring attack.
Five Wildcats scored in double figures, including 27 points from the bench, but the most encouraging sign was the continued improvement and impact of Kyle Wiltjer.
Filling in for the foul-plagued Davis, the freshman forward came off the bench Saturday to score 13 points in 19 big minutes. True to Kennedy’s words, Ole Miss scored more effectively without the shot-blocking presence of Davis in the game, but the Wildcats didn’t miss a beat offensively as Wiltjer stretched the defense and knocked down three 3-pointers.
“We’ve got a full team,” sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. “We’ve got a lot of great players on our team. When Kyle comes in and gives us points and rebounds we’re way better. He did that today. He made a couple 3 balls we needed down the stretch and we need that from now on.”
Davis has done a remarkable job of staying out of foul trouble this season, made more amazing by the fact that he leads the nation in blocked shots, but there may come a time during Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament run when he picks up a few fouls and has to head to the bench.
If that happens, Saturday’s performance by Wiltjer was a reassuring sign that UK could still win – and win handily – without the one-man blocking machine in the paint, at least for stretches.
“It just shows you what I keep saying: We probably have seven starters,” John Calipari said.
UK was also without the services of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist late in the first half because of foul trouble, setting up an extended stretch where the Cats played without Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, two players being mentioned for National Player of the Year honors.
No worries, though, senior Darius Miller and Wiltjer picked up the slack, scoring 18 straight points just before halftime to turn a two-point deficit into an eight-point halftime lead.
“It really shows our depth that we have so many great players on our team,” Wiltjer said. “Anyone can play and contribute. It really shows you a lot when a player can come off the bench and just cram on them in a zone with Darius Miller. He’s such a fantastic player and he’s given up a lot being on such a loaded team. He’d be starting for a lot of teams. It really shows our character that we all care for each other and we all want to win.”
Just imagine if Kentucky could get Wiltjer and Miller playing like that when Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist aren’t in foul trouble. For a team with so few weaknesses, it’s a scary proposition for the rest of the country.
“When you have a team full of talented players, I don’t think defenses know how to stop us,” Wiltjer said. “That’s what makes us so tough to defend.”