By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
Many fans have longed for the UK men’s basketball team to play with the confidence and joy that seemed to be a staple of last year’s national championship team.
For no particular reason other than five losses by Jan. 12, those attributes had been lacking.
They may have been awakened Saturday, however, in the Cats’ 22-point win over Auburn. And the team is hoping to keep the good feeling, and good shooting, going for the rest of the season.
“We got on a run in the second half and I think it made us have a lot of fun,” junior guard Jarrod Polson said. “When we’re hitting shots like that, it makes the game a lot easier.”
UK had one of its most efficient games of the season in that win, shooting almost 55 percent from the field, which is particularly notable after its 2-14 start.
“That was a good win for our league and just beating them by that much,” freshman center Nerlens Noel said. “We definitely were capable of it and especially with the execution down the stretch.”
For a team that has had trouble closing out games, especially since SEC play has started, the Cats felt particularly good about the margin of victory.
“It was hard to imagine,” head coach John Calipari said of the 22-point victory. “I hope (they) learned some stuff and I think Willie (Cauley-Stein) being out put a sense of urgency in the team.”
Noel again had an impressive stat night against the Tigers, flirting with a triple-double with 10 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks. He was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday.
Looking ahead to Tuesday night’s game in Alabama, Calipari is hoping to get the same effort level out of his team going forward.
The Crimson Tide (11-6) enter the game Tuesday winners of three straight, most recently a one-point home win over Texas A&M. They are tied with UK for third in the SEC at 3-1.
Sophomore guard Trevor Lacey, who Calipari recruited fairly hard to come to UK, is second on Alabama’s team in scoring at 12.5 points per game. He also leads the SEC in three-point percentage at nearly 46 percent.
In a game he says is a battle of the guards, Calipari is hoping to get the same high-effort level going forward.
“The team is making progress,” Calipari said. “That’s all I can ask. Wins and losses come and go. This team will be defined by how they play.”
The game will tip Tuesday night at 9 p.m. It will be televised nationally on ESPN.