It certainly wasn’t a performance to remember, but Kentucky got back to its winning ways tonight with an 88-67 victory over Eastern Kentucky. Alex Poythress led the way with 21 points and 13 rebounds, a stat line that kind of tells the story of the game. UK dominated down low, with 58 points in the paint to EKU’s 30, and outrebounded the Colonels 50-25; however, UK’s late 15-2 run overshadowed some major flaws, especially on defense.
But, as they say, a win is a win. Let’s go over it.
Alex Poythress was a man
After a game in which the Cats looked Charmin soft on the inside, Alex came to work, putting up 21 points and 13 rebounds, only his fifth career double-double. After the game, Poythress told reporters the team wanted to “make a statement” about its toughness. I’m not sure about the rest of the group, but Poythress certainly did, dunking, diving, and rebounding with conviction.
“I thought Alex was outstanding in the second half,” Cal said. When asked about EKU Coach Dan McHale’s comment that Alex “is a pro when he wants to be,” Cal smirked and told reporters to ask Alex about that.
“I mean, I want the kid to be the best player in the country, that’s what I want him to be,” Cal said. “He’s capable of that. Made free throws today, he just — he stopped on one rebound and he brought it down his old self and he lost it. And then on one defensive play he knew he stopped and the guy drove for a lay up and he knew it. I mean, he eliminates those two, he plays like a near, missed a couple shots, but a near perfect game.”
Alex even sounded like a pro after the game.
“You have to have the mentality saying, ‘None of these guys can guard me. I’m better than anybody out here,’” Alex said. “It really challenges us because when people say tough they’re challenging our manhood. So we have to correct the persona of us and show people we are tough guys. We’re not soft or anything like that. If you want to call us soft then come and play us.”
Unless Alex wants to correct himself and say “If you want to call ME soft then come play ME,” half of the Twittersphere should report to the Joe Craft Center tomorrow, myself included. I do love that attitude, though.
Skal is still getting pushed around by players half his size
Okay, half is an overstatement, but at times, watching the 7-foot Skal get pushed around by 6-foot guards made me want to claw my eyes out. Skal started out really well, posting up closer to to the basket and taking it up much more aggressively — that behind-the-back no-look pass to Marcus Lee was gorgeous — however, Skal regressed in the second half, letting smaller players push him out of position. A prime example:
In the first half, Skal had 4 rebounds. In the second half, he had none.
“Skal isn’t there yet,” Calipari said, joking how Skal did dive on the floor for a ball. “He dived on the floor. Now, he said he hurt his elbow.”
The shooting wasn’t great
Remember how we thought this team was going to be a great shooting team after the exhibition games? Ehhhh, not so much, at least right now. Tonight, UK was 21% (4-19) from three. To be fair, Tyler Ulis’ elbow apparently isn’t back to full strength — Cal said it was a little sore today — which could explain his 3-10 performance from the floor; however, that doesn’t explain Jamal Murray’s bad night. Murray was 6-15 from the floor for 16 points, including a 2-9 clip from the outside. Yikes.
Even worse? UK committed 17 turnovers. Up until tonight, UK averaged 12.3 turnovers per game.
Marcus Lee seemed fine
Lee didn’t practice this week after suffering a head injury vs. UCLA, and even though he didn’t start tonight, he looked fine. “Really good” in the second half, according to Calipari. Lee had 11 points off 5-5 shooting, 8 rebounds, and 5 blocks, but accounted for 4 of UK’s 17 turnovers.
“In the first half he wasn’t particularly — did well and in the second half, he played. I thought he blocked balls, he came up with rebounds,” Cal said.
Shoutout to Charles Matthews, the second man off the bench, for another impressive game. Matthews had 7 points and 2 turnovers in 13 minutes, a performance good enough to once again earn him the title of “difference maker” during Calipari’s postgame radio show.
Now, about that defense…
On paper, it doesn’t seem that bad. The Cats held the Colonels, who were averaging 90.4 points a game, to 67 points. Pretty good, right? …Until you go back and look at all the defensive breakdowns. I think Jay Williams said it best after the game when he said Kentucky won tonight on talent; not on fundamentals, not on hustle, not on effort, but on talent. Too many times, Eastern Kentucky players blew past Kentucky to the lane, or hit an uncontested jump shot. I lost count of how many times our players jumped on pump/head fakes.
“We still broke down defensively on some drives,” Cal said on his postgame radio show. “We’re too good for that.”
Is Tai Wynyard the answer?
Calipari hinted as much, bringing up the New Zealand big man when asked about the annual Camp Cal over Christmas break.
“It will be important because, plus we have Tai coming. He’s 6′-10″, 260. Could he be the answer to toughness? [Insert Calipari head tilt-eyebrow raise here] Then the other guys got to take a back seat? I don’t know until we get him here and we let him get in there and mix it up.”
“We’ve all been spoiled”
Tonight’s game was a little hard to watch at times. Definitely frustrating. Do you know why? Because, as fans of the greatest program in college basketball coming off one of the greatest seasons in the sport’s history, we are spoiled, a fact Calipari reminded us of after the game.
“We’re learning as we go, again, we’re the most inexperienced team in the country and we show it. I’m probably expecting way too much from these guys, probably because we have all been spoiled that when we step on the court, everybody thinks we’re just supposed to win.”
That is painfully true. Nine games in, we know a few things about this team. They definitely aren’t as good as they looked vs. Duke, nor do I believe they’re as bad as they looked vs. UCLA. The most consistent players are Isaiah Briscoe (who would have predicted that?), Tyler Ulis, and Marcus Lee. Alex’s performance tonight gives me hopes for the problems inside, but Skal and Jamal Murray, the two players expected to be drafted the highest, have underwhelmed. Yes, Murray is currently UK’s leading scorer, but it’s obvious he is capable of so much more.
Right now, UK isn’t a great shooting team, nor are they overly aggressive inside (sorry, Alex). There are big gaps on defense, and the learning curve for most of the freshmen, save maybe Briscoe, is steep; however, when they get back to their bread and butter — blocking and lobbing — it all clicks back into place. Staying in place when other people start pushing is where this group struggles.
“We’ve made some strides,” Calipari said. “We’ve still got a long way to go.”
And that’s okay. Really, it is.