ATHENS, Ga. – John Wall might be a couple of weeks away from playing in his first NCAA tournament, but he knows the difference in playing the kind of defense suited for a deep run in March and the kind that’s tailor-made for an early exit.
And what scares Wall the most is turning the defense off and on, similar to the way No. 3-ranked Kentucky did Wednesday night in its 80-68 beatdown of Georgia at Stegeman Coliseum.
“That’s a game when you go home,” said Wall, his eyebrows raised. “It doesn’t matter what team you’re playing. You might be playing an 8 seed and they might be on fire and you’re not playing defense.
“That’s when you go home.”
The truth is that the Wildcats played enough smothering defense when it counted Wednesday to never really be in danger after halftime.
From the 1:31 mark of the first half until the 16:15 mark of the second half, Georgia was held without a field goal.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats (28-2, 13-2) were reeling off a 12-0 run to open the second half, and it was all the Bulldogs could do to get off a shot.
But here’s the rub: There are no second chances later this month if you play defense in spurts and it ends up burning you for that one game.
“If we start playing defense like that for 40 minutes, we’re going to be scary,” said Wall, who had perhaps his best all-around game of the season with 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting to go along with six assists and three steals.
The Wildcats also had a season-high 14 blocked shots. Freshman DeMarcus Cousins swatted away six of those.
But in the first half, when Kentucky's defense blew hot and cold, he played just eight minutes after picking up two early fouls.
“In the first half, he got beat on every ball and didn’t rebound and got two fouls and had to come out,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “In the second half, he played like the beast he is.”
The 6-11, 270-pound Cousins even showed off his guard skills a couple of times in the second half, leading the break.
“I told him, ‘You go get every ball and score in the post and do what you’re doing and block shots, I’ll let you do one or two of those a game,’ ” Calipari quipped. “We’ll be up 15 or 18, and it won’t matter.”
In winning, the Wildcats clinched at least a share of their 44th SEC championship, but there wasn’t a lot of talk about that afterward.
Clearly, this team has loftier goals, and it’s equally clear that this will be this group’s only chance together to win an NCAA championship.
Calipari acknowledged that Sunday’s game against Florida at Rupp Arena could turn into “Senior Day” for a lot of his players. Wall and Cousins are both almost certainly gone, while junior Patrick Patterson and freshman Eric Bledsoe could also be playing their farewell games at Rupp.
“Each situation is different, but I’ll sit down and be honest with every one of them,” Calipari said. “In most cases, you know what I’m going to say, because I’ve done it my whole career and then we’ll go back and better sign four or five more guys. Hopefully, they’re as good as the group we just brought in. And then after that, we’ll try to bring in four or five more.
“It’s a different day and age. You don’t have guys for three and four years.”
Wall did his best to deflect any talk about the likelihood that he will be playing his final game in Rupp Arena on Sunday.
But the more he talked, the more it sounded like this would be his one and only chance at an NCAA championship ring.
“College is a great experience, to have a chance to play with a great coaching staff,” Wall said. “And playing at Kentucky makes you want to come back. The team that we have … it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have a team with this talent and have a chance to do something great.
“I’m just enjoying it while it lasts and will make a decision after the season is over.”
After shooting just 16 percent from 3-point range in its last four games, Kentucky was 8-of-24 (33.3 percent) against Georgia. Darnell Dodson came off the bench to hit three 3-pointers. He was 2 of his previous 21 from 3-point range prior to Wednesday’s game.
Calipari, who earlier refused to call it a slump, took the blame for his team’s shooting woes.
“About two weeks ago, I backed off in practice. I didn’t want to get anybody hurt,” Calipari said. “We lost a little bit of our edge.
"The shooting stuff we do, a lot of it ended up being tiptoe shooting.”
And it carried over into the games.
“If you’re tiptoe shooting, you’re not really getting into your shot,” Wall explained.
Of course, nobody ever accused Wall of being a pure shooter. He laughs about that characterization and says he’d rather be known as a money shooter.
“I’ve been hearing that, but I can make shots when it’s time to make shots,” Wall said. “I might not make them the whole game, and I might not be the best shooter there is in the country.
“But I can make shots when it’s time to make shots.”
Likewise, the Wildcats can play defense when it’s time to play defense.
The tricky part is playing that kind of ‘D’ for the entire game, a prerequisite if the Wildcats are going to make good on their march through March.
“We’ve got to keep doing what we’re doing … and don’t stop,” Wall said.