COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier summed it up best,“Does every guard have to be 6-[foot]-7?!” he cried at halftime of the Gamecocks’ battle against No. 1 Kentucky, when USC trailed 34-24.
At Kentucky, the answer is often yes. McDonald’s All-Americans preferred, too. Future NBA lottery picks also welcome.
The Wildcats rolled to a 58-43 win Saturday afternoon in front of 18,000, many of them clad in Kentucky Blue. Freshman Devin Booker -- listed at just 6-foot-6, for what it’s worth -- led all scorers with 18, veteran guard Aaron Harrison (a sophomore also listed at 6-foot-6) chipped in 13 and three steals as Kentucky (19-0, 6-0) leaned heavily on its defense to create problems.
It’s the Wildcats' common denominator.
“You drive into the lane and you can’t see the passes out because they’re so long,” said South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, who led the Gamecocks with 14 points and seven rebounds. “They’re long enough to deflect the ball and big enough to get out there on the catch.”
Don’t opposing coaches know it. South Carolina coach Frank Martin spent the last 48 hours telling his players attacking Kentucky on the first or second pass of an offensive set was a bad idea, lest they be “swallowed up by size” when they got into the lane.
“It’s not the 7-footer at the rim that’s the problem,” Martin said. “It’s the 6-[foot]-7 guy guarding you.”
Then Martin staged a soliloquy defending often-vilified Kentucky coach John Calipari.
“He doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” Martin said. “I’ve heard people say he can’t coach. What a joke. We’re in an age where all these kids are led to believe it’s about them, and he gets them to sacrifice and play for one another and well as anyone in the country.”
Martin’s right. Love him or hate him, believe he’s a saint or an NCAA rule-breaker, Calipari has figured out a way to get five potential egomaniacs to buy into the defensive end of the floor, year in and year out, not to mention getting the guys on the bench willing to subvert their own game for the good of the team.
On Saturday he talked about his pride in 20 percent of the NBA All-Star game starters, John Wall and Anthony Davis, being from Kentucky, and a youthful roster notching a physical road win. He attributed the Gamecocks’ four made field goals in the second half (yes, FOUR) to the style of play, but everyone watching knew the truth: The Wildcats make other teams’ offenses look ugly.
Take the end of the first half, when Thornwell nailed a three to put South Carolina up 24-23. USC didn’t score for the remaining 4:31, as Kentucky rattled off 11 unanswered points for a 10-point halftime edge. South Carolina’s last eight possessions of the first half went like this: turnover, miss, miss, miss, turnover, miss, miss, miss. The Wildcats play defense for 40 minutes, and when they don’t, Calipari screams for a timeout to scream at a player.
Kentucky showed zone in the second half, which adds a different dimension to the nightmare.
“Every one did their job staying in front of guys,” Booker said. “When we’re in the zone it’s hard to score on us.”
Uh, how about it’s always hard to score on them?
Kentucky leads the country in field goal percentage defense (32) and on Saturday managed to shave nine points off that, holding South Carolina to a staggering 23 percent (12-of-53). They were especially good in the last minutes. With 4:36 to play, and South Carolina still within striking distance, Kentucky made South Carolina work for the full shot clock before Marcus Stroman launched an off-balance three that he hoped would draw a foul. South Carolina corralled the offensive rebound, but the shot clock had expired. Worse for USC: The Gamecocks got Kentucky all the way down to 8 seconds left in the shot clock on the following possession, but Aaron Harrison drove and finished a tough shot in the lane to put UK up 15.
When asked just how good Kentucky is defensively, Martin answered with “Ooooh ... Ooooh,” and shook his head. He probably preferred to talk about something else.
Calling this the best defensive team in the history of college basketball is premature; we won’t know until April if that’s true. What we do know now is that this roster is built for Indianapolis. And we know they can get a lot better.
Despite Booker’s comments, Calipari was not totally pleased with the defensive effort. The scouting report on USC said to not sit on guards’ hips, but the Wildcats did that “about 15 times,” which led to drives and free throws (South Carolina went 16-of-21 from the line, which helped keep it close). He joked about having a young team -- he said the Wildcats took approximately 15 seconds to opt for sleeping in over a 7 a.m. shootaround -- and said the rookies can’t accept being blocked out so easily.
“By the end of the year, I want each of these kids to be the best version of themselves,” he said. “We’re nowhere near that yet. But we’re moving in that direction.”
Translation: Come April all those guards -- most of whom are actually listed at "6’6," despite what Spurrier thought he saw -- should be even better.