Look, I get it; it’s just an exhibition. It’s just Kentucky State, although the Thorobreds earned a lot of respect from me tonight. Kentucky lost seven players to the NBA last season and we’re still getting to know a whole crop of newcomers. Kentucky’s 111-58 thrashing of Kentucky State is hardly unexpected. Everyone knew this was going to be a rout.
But…it’s only the second game and this team — the one that we’ve promised to be so patient with and give time to gel — already looks like this?! Pardon me for giggling like a schoolgirl, but that was FUN. Like sit up in your seat and gape at the screen kind of fun.
Let’s break it down because it’s only been a few minutes since I watched the highlights and I’m jonesing for more.
Kentucky State wasn’t scared
First of all, major props to Kentucky State. Darnell Williams’ squad wasn’t scared by the bright lights of Rupp Arena and knocked Kentucky back on their heels a bit to start the game. The Thorobreds kept it close through the first eight minutes of the first half, and when the game got out of control in the second half, they didn’t give up.
After coming out on fire in their first exhibition game, the Cats were sluggish to start their second, the shots simply not falling. Behind big performances from Derek Willis and Alex Poythress, the Cats stormed back, going on a 34-4 run to push the score to 51-20 at halftime.
Alex Poythress toggled over to Beast Mode tonight
For the second straight game, Alex didn’t start, and tonight, he was actually the second man off the bench behind Isaac Humphries. After a tentative start, Calipari challenged Poythress to be more aggressive.
“You’ve got to show that you’re an elite athlete. Don’t worry about anything but being an elite athlete. Run, go grab rebounds in traffic, be tough, be lower than the other guy,” Cal said. “But, again, this is a mental breakthrough. Now, you saw spurts today where you said, ‘woo,’ but that’s got to be who he is, not every once in a while.”
On Monday, Calipari said Alex was only playing at 80%, but tonight, he looked like he was back at full-strength, rebounding, dunking, and blocking with conviction. He finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 4 blocks, and most importantly, two big roars that gives me confidence he’s ready to turn the corner.
“Derek took minutes today”
On Monday, Derek Willis made his case to be the team’s eighth man, a race Cal said was between him, Isaac, and Charles Matthews. Tonight, he made his case to be the team’s sixth man.
“He took minutes today,” Calipari said of Willis’ six point, nine rebound, five assist performance. “Now all of a sudden, he’s the first guy you want to put in because he can play the four, the three.”
Willis gave the Cats an instant boost in the first half, pulling down an offensive rebound, hitting a three pointer, and getting a steal all in under one minute. Derek has been chastised for his effort in the past, but tonight, he gave 100% on both ends of the floor. Hell, Derek had more assists than Tyler Ulis, a sentence I never thought I’d type.
“I got my mind right and started to figure things out,” Willis said. “I’d say I’m more confident. These two exhibition games have been good for me.”
This pass to Jamal Murray was particularly impressive:
Skal took over the second half
How many of you would have predicted Skal Labissiere wouldn’t score a point until the second half? Skal was held scoreless in the first half, and was so disappointed in his performance at halftime that he apologized to John Calipari in the locker room. Cal told him to stop apologizing and go to work.
He did. Skal scored 22 points in NINE minutes to start the second half, shedding his mild mannered demeanor and fighting through to the basket like Calipari’s been challenging him to.
“I came out with no energy. I could’ve done better. It’s something I’m still working on, you know, keeping the same level of play during both halves,” Skal said, adding that Calipari’s pep talk was exactly what he needed. “He sounded really confident in me. Sometimes I think he’s more confident in me than I am in myself. That’s why he gave me a talk at halftime and made me believe that I could do what I did out there.”
Five players finished in double figures
Skal led scorers with 22 points, followed by Jamal Murray with 20, Tyler Ulis with 15, Alex Poythress with 13 and Charles Matthews with 11. Marcus Lee, named UK’s player of the game, was close behind with 9 points to go along with 11 rebounds. In his second straight start, Lee looked good, sticking to his wheelhouse and cleaning up around the basket.
Tonight was a well-balanced affair in which you could find something positive to say about almost everyone who played. Even UK’s free-throw shooting was improved, with the Cats hitting 70% from the charity stripe. Guess those 500 free throws a week are helping.
Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray continue to impress
Can we just pause for a minute and realize how lucky UK is to have two of the nation’s best point guards on the same team? Ulis continues to inspire confidence, seamlessly orchestrating plays like a mind reader. After the game, Kentucky State coach Darnell Williams called Ulis the best point guard in the country.
“Personally, I haven’t seen everybody yet, but Tyler Ulis might be the best point guard in the country by far,” Williams said. “Tyler Ulis is always under control. It never seems like he is out of control or going too fast. What did he have, 15 points, four assists, one turnover? You can’t ask much more from a point guard. He just keeps the pace and you can tell that he is the floor general of the team and he runs his team.”
Meanwhile, Murray plays with the poise of a veteran, effortlessly driving the lane and swishing jumpers. Murray seems to have skipped the adjustment period most freshmen need early in the season, already looking like a dominant and confident scorer.
There are things to nitpick…
Too many one-handed rebounds, shots not falling early on, a few questionable decisions. The road will only get tougher from here. One week from Tuesday, this team plays Duke, a true measuring stick for a mostly inexperienced group.
…But, don’t you feel more confident about that game and this season after the past two games? I do.