Kentucky needed a bounce-back win following its ugly loss to Auburn over the weekend. And Thursday, in a matchup on the road against Arkansas, the Wildcats needed to do it in the only SEC environment that John Calipari had yet to pull off a victory.
Well, mission accomplished.
The Wildcats defeated the Razorbacks 80-66 on the back of arguably Tyler Ulis’ best game in a Kentucky uniform. The diminutive point guard scored a career-high 24 points and dished out five assists vs. only one turnover, and he did it against a high-pressure defense that had forced 54 turnovers in its previous three home games.
He sliced through the defense, knocked down a couple of timely 3s, got to the free throw line and converted 14 of his 15 attempts there. There was also this awesome pass to Skal Labissiere, who converted it into a thunderous slam in the second half.
Ulis was terrific, but the recipient of that great pass was the story of the game. Overall, Labissiere had his best game in nearly two months, scoring 11 points, grabbing three rebounds and blocking three shots. That slam was a puntuation mark, but he also showed off some of the other aspects of his game that make him such a tantalizing prospect.
Obviously, one of those skills is his jumper. Here’s an 18-footer he knocked down in the first half that really seemed to jump-start his confidence.
The jumper will eventually become a big part of Skal’s game, especially with his lack of strength/toughness down low pic.twitter.com/MuNoBBBroZ
— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) January 22, 2016
There honestly might not be a jump shot in college basketball that just looks prettier than that one. It’s not the best jumper in the world, but its pure fluidity, high release point and the elevation he gets on it makes it look like it’ll be a weapon once he starts to utilize it more regularly.
Another beautiful move was this little face-up attack off the dribble.
Not many near-7-footers can do that, especially against an NBA-type athlete with length like Moses Kingsley. Again, you get to see the tantalizing fluidity that Labissiere has.
Labissiere was also solid defensively on the night, looking like an actual presence at the rim instead of getting lost consistently in rotation. It wasn’t just the skills that were on display, though. It was the confidence he played with. He was feisty all night. He showcased a desire to get involved in loose balls and in battles in the paint that he hadn’t in a long time. Basically, he played with the “fight” that coach John Calipari has been begging him to bring out all season.
Overall, it was an extremely encouraging performance that should benefit the Wildcats going forward. Ulis is the catalyst of the team. Jamal Murray — who scored 19 — is the scoring presence that will need to consistently put up baskets. Labissiere is the X-factor.
If the Wildcats can bring the best out of Labissiere regularly like they did Thursday, it’s worth recalibrating the ceiling again for what this team can be by the time March rolls around.