By LARRY VAUGHT
The NCAA Tournament selection committee did not have Kentucky as one of the top 16 teams in the early selections announced Saturday just a few minutes before Kentucky beat Tennessee 77-64 to snap a four-year losing streak in Knoxville.
“Not worried about. Still got time. We have had losses but what you do at end of season, that counts,” Kentucky freshman Johnny Juzang said. “It’s early February. I am not really worried about (early selection seedings).”
If anyone understands patience, it is Juzang.
In 12 non-conference games, he had 20 points. In six of the games, he played eight minutes of less. Yet Juzang never lost confidence in himself, including when he was out with an illness.
“He has a great attitude. You are what your stats say you are,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Saturday. “He just kept fighting and I am so proud of him.”
He should be. Without Juzang, Kentucky would not have beat the Vols. Juzang had a career-high 13 points — he actually topped his career high when he had eight points in the first half — and didn’t miss a shot. He was 3-for-3 from 3-point rang, 2-for-2 at the foul line and hit a layup after a huge offensive rebound — his only board of the game on what Calipari said was the biggest play of the game and why Juzang stayed in the game— on a missed UK free throw late in the game.
He gave the Cats — who had six players with two or more fouls at halftime — a badly needed boost in a game that puts UK into a tie for the SEC lead at 8-2 after LSU’s overtime loss at Auburn left those two teams both 8-2 also.
“When Johnny Juzang shoots you think it is going in,” UK teammate Tyrese Maxey, who had 11 of his 15 points in the first half, said. “He is the first one in the gym. He will probably in the gym tomorrow morning, or probably tonight. Proud of him. He could have let go of the rope but he kept fighting.”
That fight is what UK needs.
Juzang had a nifty assist to Nick Richards on a fast break that led CBS-TV analyst Bill Raftery to note he had “been a difference maker” for Kentucky.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes insisted that Juzang, who was 5-for-25 from 3-point range coming into the game, did not surprise the Vols.
“We don’t leave any of them out of the game plan because we felt like we would get them in foul trouble,” Barnes said. “We fell asleep and fouled him once and gave him two 3’s where we fell asleep. None of their guys surprised us. We knew we could get to their bench. We talked about what those guys could do and they did what they are capable of doing.”
But if Juzang is capable of doing more of that on a team that struggles to hit 3-pointers consistently, he’s going to be an even bigger part of a lot of pregame scouting reports the next five or so weeks.