Looking back, Kentucky’s four wins in the Bahamas did more harm than good. John Calipari said so earlier this week. “It may have hurt us more than helped us,” he said of the August trip. “Did we get arrogant, all of us, me included?”
Through two real games in the regular season — not exhibition games against uninterested (and some hungover) players in paradise — it is safe to say, yes, the Bahamas games were a little misleading. Kentucky looked like a team that was ready to dominate college basketball right out of the gate, a team far ahead of where John Calipari’s young teams usually are in the early season. It helped the Cats earn a No. 2 preseason ranking and planted national championship thoughts into fans’ heads, more so than usual. I can’t speak for what it did to the players’ confidence, but I imagine they got a little full of themselves too.
Then came the Duke game earlier this week. You don’t need me to tell you how that went.
And when Kentucky was given the opportunity to bounce back against Southern Illinois, it didn’t look so good through most of the game.
The Cats turned the ball over 12 times in the first 12 minutes and fell behind by as many as eight points in the first half. The Southern Illinois offense was scoring at will while the Kentucky offense was out of sync and passing the ball to people sitting at the scorers table and in the third row of Rupp Arena. If not for a late first half run, the visiting Salukis (tall, slender dogs) would’ve taken a lead into the break. Kentucky was lucky to be up by three, thanks to the play of Keldon Johnson, Immanuel Quickley and Nick Richards. They had over half of their team’s points and Richards had 12 rebounds at halftime.
Then came the second half and Southern Illinois regained its lead. The lead got as high as seven points with around 14 minutes left in the game, and the unthinkable thought of an 0-2 start to UK’s season crept into fans’ heads. Is this really happening?
But the group of Immanuel Quickley, Quade Green, Keldon Johnson, EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards got things back on track and proved to be the winning lineup Kentucky needed, at least on this given night. It’s not the five anyone expected to change UK’s fate in the game, but they were the five to flip the script and put the Cats on the right side of the scoreboard. Green was great in setting up teammates and hitting some big shots, Richards kept grabbing every rebound in sight, and EJ Montgomery made a strong case for taking some of PJ Washington’s minutes.
In the end, it was Kentucky on top, 71-59, but the victory did little to prove UK is a good team. It will be a good team in time, but it’s not a good team right now and it’s far from the national contender we thought it was only a few weeks ago. Some of the players we thought would be stars aren’t anywhere near stars, and the team as a whole sometimes looks like they’ve never met each other. The cohesiveness and competitiveness will improve with experience, but it’s going to be a long couple of months until Calipari has them rolling — and I have no doubt he will.
Moving forward, defense should be an immediate point of emphasis because Kentucky is giving up straight-line drives and completely falling apart against the pick-and-roll. Protecting the ball should also be near the top of the to-do list after turning the ball over 19 times in this one. Finding the right shot is also a problem.
They’ll be fine, though.
Coach Cal said so after the game. “Let’s get this together. Let’s enjoy the process,” he told fans.
Until then, the ride is going to be a little bumpy.