Tonight, we got our first 40-minute look at what Kentucky would be like without Tyler Ulis and man, it was ugly. Ulis sat out tonight’s game after hyperextending his elbow on Friday, a precautionary measure to make sure he’s 100% for Thursday’s showdown with UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. And boy, will the Cats need him.
Give credit to Illinois State. They knew exactly how to confuse Kentucky without Ulis, spreading the floor and driving the basket with ease. Early on, the Cats looked totally disorganized and Illinois State capitalized on their errors, jumping to a 7-1 lead. After six ties and three lead changes, Kentucky went into halftime tied with Illinois State at 31 before eventually pulling away to win 75-63.
It was a rough game to watch, but let’s break it down.
This team needs Tyler Ulis
The Cats played without Ulis most of Friday’s game against South Florida and looked decent; sadly, that probably says more about South Florida than it does Kentucky, because tonight, the Cats looked completely lost without Ulis running the team.
“Without Tyler, it’s obvious we’re not the same team,” Cal said. “I mean, unless you were watching another game. We’re not the same team. But it still doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t play hard and guys shouldn’t battle and fight for balls. We got beat to everything in the first half.”
Isaiah Briscoe manned the point in Tyler’s absence and was totally out of sorts at the beginning of the game, turning the ball over on UK’s first three possessions. Calipari had to call a 30-second timeout to try and calm Briscoe down. The freshman guard eventually regained his composure, finishing with a team-high 18 points, along with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 5 turnovers, 1 block and 10 steal in 27 minutes.
After the game, Calipari said he was frustrated by Briscoe’s lack of awareness early on.
“The beginning of the game, he just — three turnovers in three minutes. Okay now. It’s not an easy position to play,” Cal said. “The turnovers he had, the reason I was on him, he had the lob the first play. If you’ve watched this team for the last seven years, that’s all we throw. So you can run back and try to get the lob, if you can. Maybe give us a layup, but we’re going to lob it. He threw a direct pass. I’m like, what — the very first play.”
Meanwhile, Ulis must have felt like James Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life” watching his team play without him. Throughout the game, Ulis was coaching his teammates alongside the assistants, calling out plays and looking completely frustrated.
“He was half coaching on bench, telling me who to take out,” Cal said of Tyler. “‘Take him out. Who? You know who.'”
I’m horrible at reading lips, but did he say “No, don’t do any of that bullshit!”?
Even from the sidelines, Tyler helped calm the team down
What did Briscoe and his teammates miss most about having Ulis on the floor?
“Just his experience. When they went on a run, usually Tyler is there to let us know this happens, you’re good, just keep on playing basketball. Like I said, he is our floor general.”
Briscoe said Ulis did his best to provide guidance from the sidelines.
“Oh yeah, he was telling us in the beginning, ‘alright they are making all of these shots, they can’t make shots like that the whole game, so just keep on playing basketball.’”
Without Tyler, Skal struggled
Labissiere only had two points and two rebounds tonight, a frustrating performance for the freshman big man, who just couldn’t establish himself in the post without Tyler feeding him the ball.
“Skal really gave us nothing the whole game,” Cal lamented. When asked if he told his guards not to throw to Skal to teach him to be tougher, Cal said no; they tried to get him the ball and just couldn’t.
“No, we tried to. He couldn’t catch it. We were trying to go to him. As a matter of fact, I told guys, if he’s open and you don’t throw it to him, you’re coming out. Think about that. That’s where he is right now and it’s okay. I mean, he’s not figured some of this stuff out. He’s not figured how to play lower than the other guy. He’s not figured out that I got to move my feet and quit grabbing people. But that’s okay. And he is a really, really good player who is behind.”
One day we’re going to look back at Skal’s struggles and laugh.
Marcus Lee bounced back
Calipari was so unhappy with Marcus Lee’s performance in the South Florida game that he started Alex Poythress in his place. Lee responded, putting up 13 points and 12 rebounds, only his second career double-double, the first coming against Duke a few weeks back.
“He was great today,” Cal said. “Boy was he good. If he does — if Marcus Lee doesn’t play, we lose.”
The difference between the Marcus Lee who played tonight and the one that played vs. South Florida? Energy.
“One of the things I told him is, if you’re not playing with energy, I’m not playing you. You got a player like Marcus Lee, who, if he’s to make it, it’s going to be on one thing. He’s an energy guy who can cover a bunch of positions and flies. And you need that kind of player on your team.”
“But if he’s not playing with energy, you get what you have at South Florida. You have a guy that’s just out there and it’s like, well what did he do? And he’s capable, but it’s hard.”
Dominique “changed the game”
With Ulis out, Dominique Hawkins finally got his chance to get back in the rotation. With the freshmen guards flailing, Dom came in and gave the team some much needed energy on defense and consistency from the free throw line.
“Again, the guy that changed the game was Dom,” Cal said. “Dom did what he did at the Michigan game a couple years ago. He went in and guarded that player and said, I can do it. And then he made some free throws.”
Here’s Dominique doing Dominique things:
Leave it to Calipari to spin this as a learning experience
The Cats didn’t look great tonight and even though he definitely didn’t seemed happy after the game, Cal said he was glad his young group was tested.
“We were lucky to be in the game at halftime. I even told them, this is the greatest thing for this team right here to have to deal with,” Cal said. “Look, you don’t want to go through a season where every game is easy. This stuff is not easy. So, this was a hard game for us.”
Let’s just hope Tyler is good enough to go on Thursday or it will be even harder.