Julius Randle had the ball at the top of the key. He had a pretty good look at the rim, about two feet of space between him and his defender. When he pump faked and got his opponent in the air, he then had about five feet of nothing of open floor before a Georgia defender separated him and the basket.
And then he passed it?
Yes, he passed it. Instead of taking the shot, Randle kicked it to the right elbow to James Young who had a wide-open look from 3. Young drained it, his field-goal make part of a 17-3 run that helped the Kentucky Wildcats jump on the Georgia Bulldogs in the first half and eventually run away in the second.
The play was just a microcosm of an impressive afternoon of ball movement for the Wildcats, who consistently passed up good shots Saturday for even better shots. As a result, No. 14/14 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) hammered a shorthanded Georgia team on Saturday at Rupp Arena, 79-54, in front of 23,367 fans who braved wintry conditions in Lexington.
The victory was UK’s largest margin of victory since a 29-point drubbing of Texas-Arlington on Nov. 19.
“I don’t think we had very many ball stoppers,” John Calipari said after the game. “Everybody moved the ball.”
The Cats, who rolled past the Bulldogs with runs of 13-0, 7-0 and 12-0, dished out 16 assists in making 29 field goals. UK came into Saturday averaging 12.4 assists per game.
“One of the big emphases in the last week was moving the ball,” said Willie Cauley-Stein, who bounced out of his recent three-game slump with eight points, six blocks and six steals. “We did a really good job of moving it and getting other people shots. It worked out good.”
The Cats moved the ball side to side, from high post to low post, weaving its way through a Georgia defense that entered the game as one of the SEC’s better defenses.
Off to a surprising 4-1 start in conference play before Saturday, the Bulldogs were limiting opponents to less than 70 points per game and just a touch better than 40 percent shooting with a bruising style of defense.
The Cats sliced and diced that defense by making the extra pass. Randle, who has 13 assists over his last four games, has become particularly adept at passing the ball out of double teams or recognizing an open shooter when he faces up in the high post.
The byproduct was one of the more balanced performances of the season.
“It’s just coming with playing together,” Young said. “We’re communicating a lot more. Somebody will say one more and we’ll hear it and hit the open guy.”
Young was one of 11 Wildcats who made it into the scoring column and one of four UK players in double figures. He scored 13, Aaron Harrison tallied 15, Randle posted 14 and Alex Poythress put up 11. They got their points largely by being unselfish.
Georgia head coach Mark Fox, whose team already had a significant hole to dig out of when it lost its top two shooting guards – Kenny Gaines and Juwan Parker – before the game due to injuries, said what makes Kentucky so difficult to defend is the number of players who can hurt you.
“I think that’s a strength of their team is that they have a lot of guys who can finish plays,” Fox said. “You can’t just say you’re going to shut down one guy and really impact them like you can with some teams.”
UK has always had the individual talent to hurt its opponents from any position on the floor, but it’s just now that all those individual pieces are coming together.
“We’ve got to be more like a team, and that means don’t hold the ball,” Calipari said. “That means play with energy off the ball. On the ball, that’s fine, but what about off the ball? That’s what a team does.”
Passing seems like a basic concept for a team sport, but teaching players who just 12 months ago were the stars of their high school teams to pass up shots is easier said than done.
“Every one of these kids was the centerpiece of their high school team,” Coach Cal said. “Whenever they got the ball, they tried to shoot it. If they couldn’t shoot it, they tried a little bit more to shoot it and then one more thing to try to shoot it, and if they couldn’t shoot it they passed it.”
Said Young: “We were all about ourselves about, about how we played.”
What changed? Young says time. He called it a process.
“We’re slowing not thinking about ourselves and thinking about each other,” said Young, who was 5 for 10 from the floor, 3 of 7 from behind the arc. “If one do good, we all do good.”
It also helps to have a point guard who is falling in line with Coach Cal’s previous point guard greats. He struggled early in the year, but as time has carried on and Andrew Harrison has gotten more practice time with Calipari, he’s become a much more confident, much more consistent lead guard.
Andrew Harrison, who Calipari called a “great point guard” after the win, dished out five assists, a couple of them of the lob-it-up, alley-oop dunk variety.
His teammates say they are becoming more in tune with where Andrew Harrison is going to put the ball and where they need to be to capitalize on it.
“When I see ‘Drew drive, I really just point up and I just see the defender not looking at me at all, so I just tell him to throw it up and he throws it up,” Young said.
Not to be lost in the ball movement on Saturday was one of the better defensive performances of the season. The Cats limited Georgia to 32.7 percent shooting, came up with a season-high-tying nine steals and forced a season-high 20 turnovers.
Cauley-Stein was at the heart of the defensive effort with six steals and six blocks.
“I told you he was unbelievable in practice,” Calipari said. “He was in a totally different frame of mind, and he performed. Now, he was a little shaky at times out there, but he’s just coming back from that other stuff, so you still had the dregs in there. He had a little bit of it in there. But I thought he played well, blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws. That’s who he is for us.”
With Cauley-Stein back, the Cats looking more like a team and the defense coming around, Saturday was one of the more complete performances of the season.
“I wouldn’t say a breakthrough, but we’re just getting better day by day, practice by practice,” Young said. “I just feel we’re slowing getting better. To be where we want to be is going to take time.”
Randle, Young on midseason Wayman Tisdale watch list