A win is a win and, for this young Kentucky group, a win is also a learning experience. In their first game action in Rupp Arenea, Cal’s Cats 2.0 struggled early with a fiesty Pikeville Bears squad before opening a lead early in the first half and cruising to a 31-point victory. It was the type of game that didn’t really do much to ease any concerns about the rebounding and defense of an entirely different team, but it also provided a number of promising performances. Here are a few notes….
– Right off the bat, Kentucky got a glimpse of what will likely be the starting lineup until Enes Kanter gets eligible (go knock on wood). Calipari sent Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb, DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Terrence Jones out on the floor, giving the Cats their most versatile lineup of the Calipari era. It might not have been as apparent in a game against a team that was already so overmatched, but the ability to present mis-matches out of the dribble-drive will be the key for Kentucky’s offense this season. The starting group netted 44 of the team’s 56 free throw attempts, which is as clear a sign as any that Kentucky’s unique lineup will present problems for opposing defenses. It’s not traditional or conventional, but it appears to be effective. On offense, at least.
– It was is becoming more apparent with each passing exhibition (and shouldn’t be a surprise), this team will ride on the back of Brandon Knight. Against Pikeville, Knight was again outstanding on the offensive end of the floor, playing with a John Wall-like fearlessness in attacking the rim and mixing in a beautiful pull-up jumper that Knight’s predecessor lacked consistently. After being challenged by Calipari to “lead the nation in assists”, the freshman point guard appeared to be pressing a bit early on, but flat-out took the game over when he needed to and finished with a team-high 22 points on 6-11 shooting (9-10 on free throws). Calipari admitted afterward that he left Knight in the game for 37 minutes because that’s what he’s going to need to do this season and that he needs to be ready to do so. If it wasn’t already blatantly obvious, tonight again signaled that Kentucky’s hopes hang on the shoulders of the freshman point guard.
– Another positive takeaway from the game was a strong game from Darius Miller, whose 21 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 blocks played as a nice complement to Knight’s game. The most refreshing part of Miller’s night, though, was the consistency throughout the game. For a player who has seemed to disappear at times in his first two years at UK, it was reassuring to see him play confidently as UK’s second option throughout, splitting his scoring between the first and second halves and asserting himself in what is his third distinctly different role in three years. Miller, who is essentially the back-up point guard, handled the ball on the perimeter confidently the few times he needed to do so, setting up the offense at times (most notably on a beautiful backdoor play to DeAndre Liggins), but also posted up and looked to work his defender on the blocks. He even mixed in a nice cross-over jumper with what might be the most consistenly beautiful floater in UK history. Without the luxury of multiple lottery picks on this team, the consistency from Darius Miller is going to be very key. He showed Monday night that he deserves his new weighty expectations.
– The other star of the game for the Cats and, arguably, the game’s biggest positive was DeAndre Liggins. As he did in the Blue-White game, Liggins showed that he has maintained the intensity that endeared him to Cal and the fans last season. He remains the team’s best one-on-one defender and the most likely to pick up a couple of court burns – a stat that many won’t even register in a gimme game like this In this game, though, the junior from Chicago showed intensity and maturity on offense en route to 18 points on 7-10 shooting and attacked the basket in a manner that could best be described as “crafty”. In his first two seasons in Lexington, Liggins had trouble harnassing his offensive energy and often found himself crashing into defenders wildly or forcing the ball. Against Pikeville, he seemed as if he had finally turned a corner and found the way to be aggressively efficient. If that makes sense.
– It was not the finest evening for Terrence Jones, who struggled with early foul trouble and appeared to be out of sync on offense, only attempting three shots in an abysmal first half that saw him score two points and turn the ball over five times. To Jones’ credit, he played better after the intermission and finished with nine and seven, but shot only 2-9 from the field in the process. Too often, he seemed to fall in love with playing outside on offense and had the ball ripped out of his hands after grabbing a rebound. Because of Kentucky’s lack of size inside and because he’s essentially the only big guy in the starting lineup, Jones has to play like a big. His versatility on offense will be crucial in the dribble-drive, but he has to find a happy medium between a finesse perimeter guy and a presence inside if this team is going to be as good as they hope. He clearly has the talent and it’d be insane to think one poor game is any reason for concern. But, he certainly has some things to work on.
– He didn’t pull down 26 rebounds, but Josh Harrellson was again UK’s best rebounder, grabbing 7 rebounds in only 16 minutes, three of them on the offensive end. As Calipari said last week, that either means UK is a poor rebounding team or Jorts is greatly improved. It’s probably a little bit of both (we’ll get to that shortly), but it is worth noting that Kentucky did appear to struggle on the defensive end at the start of both halves until Jorts and Eloy Vargas were inserted into the lineup to provide some size. As is the case with all players with the game inexperience of Harrellson, consistency will be the key, but it did appeaer on Monday night that Jorts’ rebounding – especially on the offensive end – is something that UK could be able to (and probably have to) count on throughout the season. Or, at least, until Kanter becomes eligible.
– Perhaps the craziest stat of the night was the 56 free throw attempts by Kentucky, 42 of which were made. If Monday’s game had not been an exhibition, it would have been the second-most team attempts of all-time. The reason for the high number of freebies was partially due to the athletic limitations of their opponents, but they were also the product of an aggressive dribble-drive offense, which forces defense to switch or be caught out of position. It’s safe to expect this Kentucky team to be near the top of the country in free throw attempts this season as Calipari uses his versatile lineup to attack the rim consistently and connecting on 86% of them in every game would be mighty nice. And, with a young team who is sure to hit a wall at some point and struggle with their jumpers, getting to the free throw line and connecting at a high clip could mean 3 or 4 extra wins this season.
– Now that we’ve got all of the positivity out of the way, UK struggled again in rebounding the ball. You can point to their lack of size as part of the reason, but Pikeville didn’t exactly have Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson out there. The major problem with UK’s rebounding appeared to be one that is common with young teams (this is a theme). Too many times, UK players (ahem, Terrence Jones) were leaving their man and running to the rim or left out of position after attempting a block instead of sealing their guy and then going after the ball. This resulted in 14 offensive rebounds for Pikeville and 15 second-chance points. It seems like a middle school fundamental, but there is a learning curve involved for players who have been able to rely on their size and athleticism to just grab balls over inferior players for most of their careers. It’s something that DeMarcus Cousins struggled with at the beginning of last season before turning a corner about 10 games in. It’s not far-fetched to think that this group will do the same. I hope.
– If you simply look at the stat sheet, Kentucky’s defense appeared to be fairly good, holding Pikeville to only 32% from the field. But, there were a number of issues for the Cats on the defensive end of the floor, starting primarily with defending the drive. Kentucky did a good job of making the Bears turn their offense over at least once or twice, but would then blow it by letting someone (most of the time Vance Cooksey getting past Brandon Knight) and get into the paint. Last season, with a handful of shot-blockers, it wasn’t a big deal. This year, with no real guardian of the rim (strangely, Harrellson appeared to be the only guy who could help and then recover to guard his man), Kentucky is going to have to play better on the perimeter to keep the easy shots off the scoreboard and keep their few big men out of foul trouble. Pikeville is far from being the most athletic team they’ll face this season.
– Another stark contrast from last season was the low number of assists for Kentucky on Monday night. The Cats finished with only seven assists as a team, but Coach Cal said in the post-game that he was not concerned with the number. He said that the dribble-drive typically doesn’t lend itself to a high number of assists (that seems strange) and that the lack of dimes was not due to poor offense, just the inability to make open jumpers. He said he was very happy with his team’s ball movement on Monday night.
– Perhaps the most troubling thing to Calipari, though, was what he called a “lack of fight” from his team against Pikeville. He said that he didn’t see a consistent agreessive effort from the Cats and that they “just don’t get it yet”. I’m sure he’s going to help them “get it” this week.
– Much was made of the return of Landon Slone, including Pikeville coach Kelly Wells bringing him off of the bench so he could get his own ovation from the Rupp Arena crowd. But, in the end, Slone finished with only four points and his most notable moment came in a battle of trash talking with DeAndre Liggins, which resulted in a technical foul for his former UK recruiting classmate. Landon Slone, it’s been real.
Overall, it was an encouraging performance from Coach Cal’s team in their first exhibtion, but it was one that also made us all aware of how undisciplined and young this team actually is. As we all expected, the potential is high for this group and there were flashes of brilliance. But, they clearly remain a work in progress. They’ll take their next exam against Dillard on Friday.