No. 23 Kentucky beats Arkansas as Skal Labissiere … actually plays well?

UK Athletics
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Tyler Ulis went for 24 points and five assists and Jamal Murray chipped in with 19 points as No. 23 Kentucky went into Arkansas and knocked the Razorbacks, 80-66 on Thursday night.

Derek Willis also played well, finishing with 12 points, seven boards and four blocks just four days after posting a double-double in the loss at Auburn. The Wildcats played as well as they have in SEC play on Thursday, which is all the more impressive considering that they had lost two of their first three road games in league play.

All in all, Thursday night was a good night for the Wildcats.

But the real story of this game was the guy that’s been the story of the Kentucky season: Skal Labissiere. The 7-foot freshman had his best game in SEC play and played his best basketball since … November, maybe? And to get an idea of just how tough this season has been for Labissiere, he had 11 points, three boards and three blocks at Arkansas.

He shot 4-for-10 from the floor. He had four fouls. He wasn’t exactly dominant.

But he was active. He played with confidence. He threw down a couple of massive dunks in traffic. He hit an 18-footer. He had a really nice drive where he took two dribbles, put Moses Kingsley in the spin-cycle and hit a little eight-foot jumper over the 6-foot-11 Arkansas center:

Those plays are the kind of plays that earned Labissiere such a high-ranking in the Class of 2015. They’re the reason that his name still gets mentioned in the lottery of mock drafts. They’re why, despite a freshman season that has, to date, been an abject disaster, Labissiere’s ceiling is still mentioned just as often as his struggles.

But it wasn’t just those plays. He was more active on the glass, he blocked three shots and, most importantly, he looked like he was engaged mentally and having fun. It’s amazing what a dose of confidence can do for a player.

It will be interesting to see where Labissiere goes from here, but the hope here should be baby steps. He’s not going to turn into an all-american overnight, but if Kentucky can get productive minutes from him and turn him into a threat offensively, it absolutely makes them a better team.

This doesn’t change the fact that he’s still a step slow when reading the game, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, and that he needs to get stronger and tougher in the paint, but it was impossible to watch him tonight and not come away thinking — hoping? — that he’s turned a corner.

At the very least, the performance had Coach Cal jumping with joy: