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Kentucky Overcoming Shortcoming in Real Time at SEC Tournament

KY Forward correspondent James Pennington is in Atlanta covering UK at the SEC Tournament. His coverage is sponsored by Republic Bank.

ATLANTA — Kentucky played Florida twice in the regular season, and once was a week ago and one of the most shoulder-slumping moments of the season for the young Wildcats. After beating Georgia 70-58 in Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinal, Kentucky will get a third go at the No. 1 team in the country and, no matter the result Sunday, the likely No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament when the seeds are announced Sunday evening.

The selection committee is known to say that conference finals played on Selection Sunday don’t have huge ramifications in seeding, so it’s likely the Wildcats’ improved play in Atlanta has already secured, or at least put them in a one- or two-seed range, where they’ll end up regardless of the outcome of Kentucky-Florida III. But win or lose, the Wildcats’ play Sunday will go a long way in determining how significant John Calipari’s tweak was: whether the Wildcats are better and more comfortable in their own skin or they’ve simply exploited easily exploitable teams.

If you are still wondering what Calipari’s much-ballyhooed tweak was, it was simple: play dribble-drive offense. He’s trusted Andrew Harrison to run the offense and turn Kentucky from a laboring offense into one freer and looser. In Atlanta, Kentucky has looked more like Calipari’s first team—the John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins team that went to a regional final—because of Harrison’s freedom to drive and dish. Calipari is calling fewer and fewer plays, Harrison said, and letting collapsing defenses dictate decisions.

He’s played more relaxed because of it, even if the game has sped up, and the results scream in approval. He had a career-high eight assists in the quarterfinal against LSU and topped that against Georgia, tallying nine.

Aaron Harrison has also played his best basketball yet the way the offense is now running. He finished 7 of 10 from the floor Saturday and scored 22 points, leading the charge right out of the gate with a Newton-be-damned alley-oop and transition three that gave the Wildcats a 10-point lead four minutes in. When foul trouble bogged down the Wildcats—five players had at least two fouls at halftime—and snapped Kentucky out of its offensive rhythm, Aaron Harrison was the only thing keeping Kentucky from trailing at halftime. Take Aaron Harrison away, and Kentucky’s other players shot 7 of 21 in the first half and were 3 of 9 from the foul line. Instead, Kentucky was up 36-32 at the break, and Aaron Harrison had 16 points.

Kentucky’s two starting guards were its two best players Saturday, resembling throughout the kind of players they were widely considered to be as incoming recruits.

“I mean, I’ve seen it all year,” Julius Randle said. “You guys may not have, but I’ve never lost faith in them or anything. Those guys are two of the best guards in the country, if not the best guards in the country. I’ve played against them my whole life and it doesn’t surprise me. That’s who I know.”

Andrew Harrison said he’s felt the pressure to succeed simply because he’s a point guard playing for John Calipari, and John Calipari point guards are supposed to be perfect, and instantly so. He said he’s had problems with inconsistency before, and those have showed this season. Playing freer has helped him, he said; so, too, has the collective confidence of the team that comes naturally with experience. If Kentucky was better Friday than it was in last week’s season-closing, 84-65 loss at Florida, it had to show it could carry that over to Saturday.

The Wildcats did, and they responded just as strongly when the Bulldogs made their run. Georgia cut the Wildcats’ lead to 46-43 with 13 minutes to play. On the next trip down, James Young missed a three, and Dakari Johnson grabbed a rebound 10 or 12 feet from the basket. He exploded straight for the basket, nimbly taking two steps and making a lay-up through a foul. He missed the free throw (he was 0 for 4 from the foul line), but he had ignited the Wildcats with his enthusiasm. Within a minute, Kentucky was up 10. Georgia got no closer than eight the rest of the way.

Even if Kentucky’s players seem to have forgotten the lows of the season that was, not everyone has. The selection committee certainly won’t, and Florida won’t. Billy Donovan will have the Gators ready to exploit the same weaknesses they did in topping Kentucky twice this season by an average of 14.5 points. Consider it one more wrong the new Kentucky will have to right.

“Basketball is adversity,” Andrew Harrison said. “What would it be without having to overcome something?”

Photo: Kentucky has looked like a team reborn at the SEC tournament, and Andrew Harrison is leading the charge. (File photo by James Pennington)