Gators Chomped—By John Huang
Way back in my dental school days, I had a classmate who was your typical obnoxious Gator fan. Granted, the guy had legitimate familial connections to the Florida program, but his incessant braggadocio about the team in orange and blue still rankles me to this day. Honestly, a lot of things about the visitors from Gainesville remain irritatingly bothersome. In addition to the misguided loyalties of my wayward nephew, there’s also Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow, Joakim Noah, Matt Walsh, the Gator chomp, and the whole Gator Nation bit. All together, they don’t quite generate enough vitriol to warrant wasting your precious time and daily energy, but you do have just enough dislike for them to cheer like heck against them whenever they’re playing the Wildcats.
After a 22-point drubbing in the O’Dome last month, revenge never tasted as sweet for UK—especially with sole possession of the SEC lead on the line. The 76-66 victory made the “rock bottom” events of February 4 a distant memory. Malik Monk, taking up the slack for injured teammate De’Aaron Fox, went ballistic with 33 points. His 30 points after halftime made Gator’s coach Mike White’s head swim. The youthful Florida head man was like a precocious adolescent prodigy in way over his head on the deep end of the Rupp Arena pool. Bam Adebayo contributed another impressive double-double with 18 points and 15 rebounds. The win sets the streak since the Calipari reboot at six games, puts Kentucky in the definitive driver’s seat of the SEC regular season race, and gives all of BBN the hope that normalcy will soon be restored in the world of hoops.
Even with the big win, this budding rivalry game against the pesky Gators shows that this Kentucky team still needs to confront some nagging issues. Discipline, trust, empowerment, and toughness are buzzwords we’ve all heard coming out of Coach John Calipari’s mouth thus far this season describing the qualities he’s trying to instill in his young team. To those we can now add one more worrisome late-season “issue du jour”—confidence. Every athlete knows that confidence can often be fleeting. One day you’re in the zone–like Malik Monk versus North Carolina—hitting everything in sight. The next day you’re like Isaiah Briscoe at a bricklayers’ convention, clanging your shots wide right off the bottom of the backboard. As tournament time approaches, it’s somewhat perturbing to see Kentucky’s confidence perched so precariously on a game by game basis.
After his strong performance in the road win against Georgia, senior guard Dominique Hawkins felt his confidence level was the highest it’s ever been since donning the Kentucky jersey. “I feel real comfortable on both ends, offensively and defensively,” said the Richmond, KY native. “It feels really good. I’ve been here for four years. I really haven’t gotten to show my offensive side that much, but definitely being able to play in big moments and play big minutes and actually being able to change the game around, make a few shots our team needed, it feels good to do that and it lets Coach know that he can count on me down the stretch as well.”
Bam Adebayo, who’s never been one to lack confidence in his individual game, was asked about the confidence level of the entire team. “We’re at an all-time high because we’re getting it together,” he said. “We’re coming together even more and we’re buying in.”
I’m not buying in yet. All that positive talk may be fine and dandy, but often times one’s confidence is only as good as your last game. Adebayo was coming off a huge performance against Missouri, so he was understandably confident. The rest of the team was less than stellar. Coach Cal had this to say immediately after the surprisingly narrow victory in Columbia. “We had guys playing scared. If you’re afraid of Missouri, how are you going to play in that (NCAA) Tournament?”
Therein lies the dilemma. Against the Gators, Monk and Bam stepped up big. Wenyen Gabriel, Mychal Mulder, and Isaac Humphries wilted like wallflowers. A big conference win should do wonders for collective team confidence, but the personal confidence levels of each Wildcat player will ultimately be determined by their level of individual play. Malik never lacks for confidence regardless of his performance and Isaiah Briscoe is probably perpetually and dangerously overconfident, but everyone else needs to ramp up the confidence meter in these next couple of ballgames.
“I’m going to be on guys,” Cal reiterated. “If I think you’re playing timid in practice, I’m going to bury you. If you can’t take me, how in the world are you going to go in these games and take the other team? I’m rooting for you. But I’m going to call you out.” The author of the book of Hebrews wholeheartedly agrees with Coach Cal. “Do not throw away your confidence, for it will be richly rewarded.” Here’s hoping for a confident and rewarding end to the regular season.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.
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