Considering the location, the opponent and what was on the line on Wednesday night, and I think that what we saw from No. 8 Kentucky as they went into the Pavilion and knocked off Ole Miss, 99-76, in their brand new arena was their most complete performance of the season.
I know that might sound crazy considering that the Wildcats already have a win over No. 6 North Carolina this season, and blow out wins over the likes of Arizona State and Valparaiso.
But that win over North Carolina came on the shoulders of two players: Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox. Monk scored 47 points that day. Fox had 24 points and 10 assists. Combined, they were responsible for 87 of Kentucky’s 103 points. They carried Kentucky that day.
On Thursday night, the story was different. Fox was OK, finishing with seven points and seven assists, and while Monk finished with 34 points, it felt different than the game against Kentucky. He didn’t really get going until later on in the second half, and by then, Kentucky had already taken a commanding lead.
On Thursday, it was Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo that were the dominant forces. Briscoe finished with 19 points, 11 assists and 10 boards, just the third triple-double in Kentucky basketball history and the second this season. Adebayo and 25 points, playing what was by far his best game of the season. Derek Willis wasn’t really hitting shots – that will come, he’s too good of a shooter not to – but he rebounded the ball well, threw a handful of beautiful outlet passes and even blocked a few shots.
Why does this matter?
Because Adebayo hasn’t yet been able to find a way to impact a game like this for 40 minutes; he’s done it in spurts. Because this was the best game that Briscoe’s ever played in a Kentucky uniform and it came on the road against a pretty good SEC opponent; the knock on him has been that he can beat up on mid-majors but struggles against players with comparable size and athleticism. Because being able to trust Willis on the defensive end of the floor means that Kentucky can play with two shooters on the court on the offensive end.
Because the success of that supporting cast takes pressure, and some of the attention of a defense, off of this team’s stars, Fox and Monk.