After eight long, dragging months without Kentucky basketball in our lives, the 2020-21 team made the wait worthwhile in their return to action with an 81-45 blowout victory over Morehead State to open the season.
The new-look Wildcats featuring zero returning production from last year’s group – the lone returnee, Keion Brooks Jr., missed the game with a leg injury – took over from the opening tip and never looked back. Following a circus shot from Isaiah Jackson to open the game, Morehead State tied the game at 2-2, the closest they would get the rest of the way.
The Wildcats would lead by as many as 20 points in the first half before spreading the lead to 30 with 11:41 left in the game, and then as many as 39 points overall with 2:26 to go. It was a dominant effort from start to finish.
In a balanced scoring performance from top to bottom, BJ Boston led the team with 15 points on 7/14 shooting to go with seven rebounds, one assist and one steal. After a slow start – he didn’t make his first basket until the 9:50 mark in the first half – the five-star freshman quickly found his groove in the mid-range and at the rim, including several flashy contact finishes inside. He failed to make a 3-pointer in four tries, but the talented scoring guard certainly looked the part elsewhere in his debut.
Boston’s talented counterpart on the wing, five-star newcomer Terrence Clarke, was tied for second on the team with 12 points on 5/9 shooting to go with four rebounds, four assists and three steals. As expected, the versatile freshman also saw some time at the point guard position, where he comfortably ran the offense and made minimal mistakes with just two turnovers. Driving to the rim at will, Clarke finished several floaters and tough attempts at the basket, along with drawing a plethora of fouls to earn shots at the line. He’ll need to convert those at a higher clip – he finished just 2/5 there – but it was certainly a positive sign of things to come as the season progresses.
In his debut as the team’s starting point guard, Devin Askew also added 12 points in the win, shooting 5/9 overall and 2/3 from three to go with four assists and three rebounds in 27 minutes of action. While he had a few strong finishes at the rim, Askew’s biggest moments came on catch-and-shoot opportunities, with both makes from deep coming on wide open looks on pass-outs from the interior. With standout big men Olivier Sarr and Isaiah Jackson expected to draw quite a bit of attention inside this season, Askew will have plenty of similar looks throughout the year. Consistency will be crucial and rewarding there.
Behind Askew was fellow point guard Davion Mintz, who finished with ten points on 2/4 shooting and 2/3 from three, three assists, one rebound and one steal. He also added four makes from the free throw line on four attempts, an aspect of his game Calipari specifically praised after the win. He was the perfect complementary piece and scoring spark plug off the bench to lead the second unit, a role he should embrace and thrive in this year.
Calipari also experimented with Askew and Mintz on the court together at times, which will allow for scoring, shooting and facilitating from the one and two when one of Boston or Clarke need a breather or deal with foul trouble.
Isaiah Jackson and Cam’Ron Fletcher both added nine points in the victory, with the former finishing with four rebounds and two blocks and the latter adding five rebounds, three assists and a steal. While Jackson has earned all of the hype leading up to the season, Fletcher’s impact was a pleasant shock, and it’s one that will earn him consistent playing time this season if he keeps it up.
Looking at the advanced analytics, Fletcher finished with a team-high 7.4 net points after producing 10.9 points on offense and giving up 3.5 points on defense. The next closest was Mintz with 6.6 net points (11.9 produced, 5.3 allowed).
Calipari absolutely loves players who provide energy on the glass and defensively, and that’s exactly what the four-star freshman out of St. Louis provided in his debut.
Like Boston, senior center Olivier Sarr got off to a surprisingly slow start, as well, finishing the first half with zero points and zero rebounds. The incoming Wake Forest transfer finally got things rolling with a strong alley-oop slam in transition with 15:10 mark in the second half en route to eight total points on 4/6 shooting to go with three rebounds, two blocks and one assist.
The scary part about Sarr’s slow start and limited overall production, especially for a player that averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per contest at Wake Forest last year, is that Kentucky genuinely didn’t need help from the frontcourt – specifically their third-best player in Sarr – to cruise to the blowout victory. The guard play was so impressive and the defense limited scoring opportunities so well on the other end of the floor that anything the bigs provided was icing on the cake.
That aspect of the game is what made Wednesday’s blowout victory so encouraging. They didn’t play perfectly, turning the ball over 15 times compared to 18 total assists, shooting 64.3 percent from the free throw line, and allowing the occasional open look from three. But as a collective unit, the talent, length and depth was so overwhelming for Morehead State that they simply couldn’t fight back. And while the Eagles are one of the weakest teams on Kentucky’s schedule, the problems they faced are going to be similar for everybody taking on the Wildcats this season.
Ten different scholarship players saw game action, with eight players on the floor seeing at least ten minutes and no one finishing with less than six minutes. When the reinforcements entered the game, production and energy rarely dipped, allowing the deficit to continue to grow when the Eagles’ fatigue set in. It was a similar situation we saw with the 2014-15 Kentucky roster, just one haymaker after another to create an overwhelming knockout, and a relatively early one at that.
While it’d be insane to compare this group to one of the greatest college basketball teams to ever play the game, it’s worth noting that the frustration Morehead State felt was the same opponents dealt with back in 2014-15.
The Eagles finished the day shooting just 34 percent overall and 14.3 percent from three and turned the ball over 20 times compared to just seven assists. No player scored more than 11 points, and five of the team’s rotation players finished with four points or less. Trailing over 38 minutes of the game, Morehead State turned the ball over on 30.8 percent of possessions.
With eight players standing 6-foot-7 or taller and eight players with 7-foot wingspans, Kentucky’s length is a serious issue for opponents that isn’t going away. With record-breaking strength and agility numbers from UK’s Pro Day, the speed and athleticism isn’t going away either.
Looking at this roster, I struggle to find any glaring weaknesses that will cost them victories down the road. On first glance, the problems they had and mistakes they made are all correctable, Calipari said as much after the game.
Kentucky’s schedule is set to ramp up immediately with a home matchup against a likely NCAA Tournament team in the Richmond Spiders on Sunday, followed by a neutral site matchup against Kansas in the Champions Classic on Tuesday, Dec. 1. We’ll learn more about the Wildcats and have a better feel for just how good they can be after those games.
Tonight, though, optimism is warranted, and frankly, necessary. This is a good basketball team, one fans should be excited about.
Just how good? We’ll find out in the next week.