ST. LOUIS — Remember when Kentucky looked like a group of lost kittens? When no one outside of Kevin Knox wanted to take a shot? When they were careless with the basketball? When all those freshmen looked like, well, freshmen?
John Calipari’s squad began February in a state of confusion. A month away from the start of the postseason, when teams should be hitting their stride, Kentucky stumbled into a four-game losing streak. In Lexington, it was as if the sky was falling. Players were talking about trying to stay positive and finding their roles. Calipari, meanwhile, was trying to get everyone in the locker room to simply trust him.
Well, what started with a much-needed home win over Alabama on Feb. 14 came full circle against the Crimson Tide in St. Louis on Saturday. Thanks to an 86-63 trouncing of Alabama in the semifinal round of the SEC tournament, Kentucky is suddenly winner of six of its past seven, on the verge of a conference tournament championship and well positioned to make a run in the NCAA tournament once again.
No longer does it look like a confused basketball team. Not when PJ Washington is throwing down thunderous dunks and 6-foot-9 Wenyen Gabriel is coming off the bench to provide not just a post presence on defense, but a superbly efficient shot from beyond the arc (Gabriel made all seven of his 3-point attempts against Alabama). And, for that matter, not when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is turning in games of 19 points, 8 assists and zero turnovers.
Knox didn’t have to do it all this time, taking six shots and scoring 11 points. Instead, it was a total team effort.
Calipari got a little hot under the collar when Alabama made a run a little more than midway through the second half and cut the lead to nine, but his players never seemed all that rattled. Gabriel hit a 3, and Kentucky maintained its stranglehold.
“I came in with more focus, and I just let it fly,” Gabriel said. “My teammates trusted me, and the shots fell today.”
In all, Kentucky shot 64 percent from the field and had 20 assists on 27 made field goals.
Jarred Vanderbilt’s absence during the SEC tournament with an ankle injury could have spelled trouble for these Wildcats. Instead they’ve done just fine without him, playing stifling defense. They allowed a season-low 19 first-half points against Alabama; the previous low came just one night earlier, when Georgia managed only 23.
Alabama star freshman Collin Sexton came into Saturday’s game on fire with one buzzer-beating shot and 58 total points in the two tournament games under his belt. He left with just 21 points on 6-of-14 shooting against Kentucky.
At one point in the second half, down double digits, Sexton attempted a lob off the backboard to himself -- rather than passing to a teammate -- that was ultimately snuffed out by the defense.
Even the projected NBA draft lottery pick couldn’t carry his team through Kentucky’s seemingly endless array of 6-9 or taller forwards.
Calipari said his team showed him something against Alabama, especially forward Sacha Killeya-Jones, who added six points and five rebounds, and guard Hamidou Diallo, who scored nine points on six shots.
“Hami is coming around,” Calipari said. “He made some baskets today, some 3s. These guys are starting to come together.”
Looking back on it now, Calipari can view that four-game losing streak in early February differently. It was, he said, “The best thing that happened to my team.”
“Not me personally,” he added. “ ... I was ready to jump off a bridge.”
After beating Alabama, Calipari was quick to remind the media that this was never going to be a season of smooth sailing -- how before it started, he told everyone who would listen, “This is going to get ugly before it gets better.”
They just had to work through the kinks. Players had to buy into the system. Freshmen had to understand it wouldn’t allow them to play isolation basketball like they were used to in high school when they were five-star prospects with everyone eating out of their hands.
Calipari never doubted the talent he had. He just had to get everyone to trust.
“What you’re seeing now is they’re committed to one another,” he said before shifting gears. “But I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Kentucky isn’t all of the sudden a team built to take 18 3-pointers in a game, Calipari said. Nor can anyone expect Gabriel to come off the bench and hit every shot he takes from deep.
What it might be able to continue doing is play with the kind of confidence and togetherness we've seen of late, though. It might be able to share the basketball and have different guys step up on different nights.
It might be able to make a run at an NCAA title after all.
With the toughest stretch of the season behind them, now comes the fun part for the new-look Wildcats.