We knew coming in that Vermont was a dangerous squad; however, after Kentucky cruised to a 12-point lead in the first half, everything seemed fine…until the Catamounts clawed their way back into the game and gave us the first nail biter of this very young season. Let’s break down what went right and what went wrong in Kentucky’s 73-69 win over Vermont.
GOOD: PJ Washington
PJ Washington didn’t made any preseason award watch lists or all-conference teams, but he was Kentucky’s most impressive player tonight, leading all scorers with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Washington wouldn’t take no for an answer on the inside, and his tenacity was a welcome sight after Friday’s subdued performance.
“There were a little bit of first game jitters [vs. Utah Valley],” Washington told Mike Pratt. “This game, I tried to focus on just doing my job and coming out and playing as team. I just wanted to play hard.”
Calipari praised Washington’s performance after the game, especially his two-handed rebound in the closing moments of the game.
“I thought PJ was a beast, finally,” Cal said. “First time this year. I just called him in and said, that’s what you need to be every practice and every game.”
Before the season, Calipari said Washington was one of the alpha dogs on this squad; today, he played like it.
BAD: Three-point defense
Vermont hit 10 threes this afternoon, seven in the second half. For all of their athleticism, the Cats couldn’t stay in front of Vermont’s guards on the perimeter, a very discouraging trend, and if not for a few plays, it could have come back to burn them. Let’s work on that.
GOOD and BAD: Hamidou Diallo
Diallo finished with 16 points, but — in what might be a microcosm of Kentucky’s season — his performance was both encouraging and infuriating. For almost every good Diallo moment, there was a bewildering one, most notably a wild, flailing drive at the basket in the second half that drove Calipari nuts on the sidelines.
“How about Hami’s one-handed foot-kick-throw?” Cal said afterwards. “The game is in the balance, man! This isn’t a H-O-R-S-E shot.”
BAD: Too many missed shots around the basket
With freshmen, this may be expected, but how many gimmes has Kentucky given up over the past two games? While the Cats have zero problems getting to the basket, more often than not, they cannot finish. That’s likely due to fatigue, but it’s definitely something that needs to improve moving forward.
GOOD: Jimmy Dykes is back
Dykes was back on the call this afternoon, and I have to say, as much as we’ve made fun of him over the years, I really missed him. We were treated to a bit of peak Jimmy when he broke out a pair of cardboard hands to demonstrate Kentucky’s ridiculous wingspan this season:
Welcome back, Jimmy.
If we’ve learned anything in the first few games, it’s that Kentucky is prone to scoring droughts. Like the end of the first half vs. Utah Valley, the Cats were cold to end the second half, missing seven of their last eight shots.
“I was trying to figure out who we do we go to,” Cal said of his team’s dry spell at the end of the game. “I don’t know yet. Do you know? If you know, write me a note because right now, we don’t know.”
GOOD: Knox hit a clutch three
One person he can go to is Kevin Knox. After a quiet game, Knox stepped up to hit a huge three to push Kentucky’s lead back to six with three minutes left. Calipari brought that shot up twice in his postgame press conference.
“How about Kevin’s three?” Cal said. “That was big. I need to know he could make that shot…It shows me he has courage enough to make it. A couple other guys missed all their shots. Well, maybe late, I’m not going to have you shoot it.”
Big-time players make big-time shots.
GOOD: Sacha Killeya-Jones
Sacha Killeya-Jones has been a different player this season. Not only is he more confident on the floor, he’s not giving up anything, playing with so much motor that Calipari left him in during clutch time.
“Sacha played his butt off today,” Cal said. “You just saw him, the work that he’s put in. This is what he’s looking like in practice, and now he’s carrying it over to the game.”
Wenyen Gabriel only scored two points, but he had a huge defensive play in the closing moments to prevent the upset. Thus far, I am very impressed by the veterans, who are thriving in their roles.
BAD: Kentucky only won by four
If you’ve been paying attention, you knew Vermont was a formidable foe; yet, that fact provided little comfort when the lead was cut to three in the final minutes.
“You cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything,” Cal joked at the beginning of his press conference. “You gotta play good teams. Now, I didn’t realize how good this team was until I watched the tape and then I was like, ‘Who scheduled this game?’ It’s ridiculous.”
GOOD: Kentucky won
When you get past the margin and look at Vermont’s resume from last season, today’s narrow win feels a lot better. Essentially, the Cats survived a scare from a tournament team, which is more than Calipari thought would happen when he watched Vermont’s tape over the weekend.
“This is a big time win,” Calipari said on his postgame show. “This is a BIG TIME win. I watched the tape, I thought we didn’t have a chance of winning.”
Will Kentucky’s resiliency pay off vs. No. 4 Kansas on Tuesday night? Ready or not, we’re about to find out.