Tonight fans of the Big Blue Nation will truly find out whether it is panic time or not. The Samford Bulldogs will enter Rupp Arena, having only two wins on the season, the latest coming last week against Georgia Southern which snapped a six-game losing skid. Among the weaker opponents they have faced, Samford has played — and lost — to Louisville and Memphis, scoring 54 points in each contest. Tonight’s game will be a good judgment to see just where the Cats are at, and how they respond to back-to-back losses and having to deal with being the first Calipari-led Kentucky team to lose at home.
Samford is a small team that is dominated by young players. The starting lines up consists of three freshmen and two sophomores. The tallest player that is projected in the starting lineup is 6-foot-8 forward Tim Williams. The tallest player on the roster is a 6-foot-10 junior who is averaging just 1.7 points per game.
PG: Archie Goodwin vs. Jaylen Beckham
Archie Goodwin may see decreased minutes running this point this game, as an emergent Ryan Harrow is worked into the fold. Harrow came out at the tail end of the Baylor game, and had the Cats mounted the comeback, it is likely all the talk would be about him. Regardless, Goodwin will get his minutes and hopefully find more of a groove as a scorer.
If the name “Jaylen Beckham” sounds familiar, you aren’t crazy. Beckham is a Lexington native who played his high school ball at Bryan Station. He was a three-star prospect in the 2012 class and chose Samford over offers from Alabama, DePaul and Seton Hall. Beckham made his first start of the year for the Bulldogs last week against Georgia Southern. He is averaging 2.8 points and 1.4 assists on the season.
SG: Julius Mays vs. Raijon Kelly
If Ryan Harrow is injected into the lineup for more minutes, we might expect to see less Julius Mays. But don’t be shocked if it’s actually Goodwin who sees decreased minutes. Mays is on a tear as of late, knocking down nine three-points in his last three games.
For Samford, Raijon Kelly is the team leader in points, averaging 13.4 per game, to go along with 3.6 assists. He is known as a ball-handler and skilled shooter who can log minutes as both a point guard and shooting guard. He is the most valuable player the Bulldogs will put on the floor tonight.
W: Alex Poythress vs. Connor Miller
Alex Poythress is averaging 17.4 points per game over the last five outings, so he just needs to keep doing what he is doing to keep progressing. The dynamic playmaking ability is always there, and is offensive game is electric. The one complaint you’ll hear fans voice, namely on Twitter, is his defensive lapses if only sporadically. Many want to compare Poythress to a Kentucky legend, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and while they share a lot of similarities in their game, Kidd-Gilchrist was a tenacious defender 100 percent of the time. Poythress isn’t anywhere near that. At least not yet.
His counterpart, Connor Miller is said to be a “deadly long range shooter,” according to his bio on Samford athletics page. His statistics say otherwise. On the season, Miller is just 19-for-65 from the floor. That is 29 percent. From behind the arc, he is 13-for-48. Which is 27 percent. Unless something drastic changes between now and tipoff, it seems Mr. Miller is very little threat to light up the scoreboard.
F: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Clide Geffrard Jr.
Fans will no doubt wearily watch Wiltjer to see if he earns his stripes. It is no secret: if he isn’t hitting shots there is no reason for him to be on the floor. His defense boarders on a liability, and the sole purpose of his existence on the court is to knock down shots. If he can’t find a groove and forget about “guiding” his shot, expect to see a lot of Willie Cauley-Stein.
The freshman Clide Geffrard Jr. is a much better scorer than fellow shooter Connor Miller. Averaging just 20 minutes per game, Geffrard is scoring 8.2 points and collecting 3.7 rebounds, while shooting 46 percent from the perimeter. But at just 6-foot-5, he will be vastly undersized to 6-foot-10 Wiltjer.
C: Nerlens Noel vs. Tim Williams
Nerlens Noel struggled mightily against the Baylor Bears. But to be fair, so did the entire team. Noel shot a pitiful 3-for-14 from the floor, missing point-blank shots time and time again. He did manage to reel in 16 rebounds, seven of which were offensive. Had just a few of those offensive put-backs gone down, the outcome of last week’s game would have been much different. Fortunately for the Cats, they will have to try really hard to ever shoot that poorly again. It seemed like bad luck more than anything.
Tim Williams will line up at center, by virtue of him being the tallest player on the court for the Bulldogs, at a relatively puny 6-foot-8. His guards feed him the ball in the low block, as you would expect of most big men. And he scores with good efficiency, knocking down 56 percent of his shots. As the team leader in minutes played, the Bulldogs will continue to look for him to lead the charge in the paint, and be the big body on the boards, where he is collecting over eight rebounds per game.