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Selfless Wildcats Separate Selves from Last Year's Disappointment

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

ATLANTA — At times this season, Kentucky has shown disconcerting relapses into itself that resemble the team that puttered out into the NIT last year. That team flickered faintly at times but ultimately was a fractured group beyond salvage. Kentucky’s 85-67 win over LSU in Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinal proved a few things; the simple 18-point margin of victory is one of them, that the Wildcats have it in them to put their collective foot down and play together. But that’s it, ultimately, right there: They played together.

What separates this year’s team from last year’s is that even in moments of apathy, it seems to come from letting their teammates down instead of letting themselves down, and that seems significant when elimination is on the line as it was Friday and will be in every game this Wildcats team ever plays together from here on out.

“You know, it never really felt like last year,” Willie Cauley-Stein said. “Maybe to the outside people, but playing on the team, everybody was still together. Last year we had, like, two people off somewhere else, two people off somewhere. But for us, everybody was together, and we all hung out with each other.

“That’s a big part of how you come together as a team, and last year was just everybody went their separate ways, and that’s what the outcome of the game was: Everybody played their separate ways. You can’t win like that.”

Selflessness (and its antonym) in basketball manifests itself in all kinds of ways. Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson took 19 threes in the Rebels’ win Thursday night, and that’s not totally out of the norm, but he has a bond with his teammates and his coaches that allows (or maybe even dictates) that he do that. He also goes out of his way to high-five teammates who pass him the ball after makes, and he might even fist-pump a little more emphatically when a teammate’s shot goes in than he would for one of his own falling.

Selflessness is not exclusively making passes or helping a teammate on defense, much in the same way that insistence on shot-taking on a cold night isn’t necessarily selfish. Consider Julius Randle. He missed his first eight shots, not scoring from the field until a breakaway dunk 30 minutes in.

He still played hard, and more importantly to him, he didn’t let his misses keep him from taking shots when those shots were the best looks for Kentucky’s offense in the flow of that play.

“What else could I do other than help the team win? It’s easier just to let the offense take control. Earlier in the season, that’s what I may have done. I could’ve shut down. But the rebounding and defending is something I can always do. Like I said, I couldn’t throw a rock in the ocean, but we got the win by 18, so I couldn’t be happier.”

Whether Kentucky let a 16-point second-half lead melt down to three in five minutes’ time or LSU stormed from down 16 to down three is irrelevant. It happened, and probably because both teams dictated it. LSU got hot, and the Wildcats couldn’t play on as brilliantly as they had played  in the moments building up to that lead. Leading 52-49 with 12 minutes to go, Alex Poythress hit a three from the corner. From there, the lead was back at 10 within three possessions (the third was Randle’s dunk, his first field goal). To that point, Poythress was playing worse than any player on Kentucky. He was being jumped over and around for rebounds, and he was turning the ball over. He didn’t play as many minutes as he usually does, because he wasn’t doing much of value in the game.

But after the game, several of his teammates, unprompted, said his shot was the biggest shot of the game for the team.

Any comparisons to last year’s team are made relative to expectations: That team underachieved, and to date, so has this team—though it will only be remembered for the weeks to come rather than the months that have already passed, so it may be more appropriate to say we think this team has underachieved. Either way, last year’s team failed because, as Cauley-Stein said, they played their separate ways, and that’s not these Wildcats.

Photo by James Pennington