The more things change the more they stay the same. Kentucky fixed it’s perimeter defense, but it was an overall frustrating defensive performance as Tennessee State scored with ease inside. Several important players for the Cats played great, but other players remained inconsistent and left us shaking our heads at times.
It wasn’t the 40-minute performance we were hoping for, but it was still a win. Here are five takeaways from UK’s 77-62 win over Tennessee State.
1. The win:
Like I said, it wasn’t the 40-minute performance we were looking for but I do think UK improved in some areas. The Cats perimeter defense was much better, but UK struggled guarding off the dribble. Some of UK’s most important players looked really good tonight, but some of the usual suspects were inconsistent. It was somewhat the norm for how Kentucky has played this month. Plenty of good but also a lot of frustrating mistakes.
I liked that Tennessee State tried to challenge Kentucky in some different ways. The last few teams have been three-point heavy but the Tigers weren’t afraid to get physical with UK and it was more similar to how an SEC game may look for Kentucky in a couple months. Obviously Tennessee State isn’t SEC caliber, but the the style of play was more comparable than previous games.
2. Keldon Johnson:
He’s the type of player that could get hot in March and lead UK to a Final Four or a title. His energy is almost unmatched across the country and once he becomes a little more efficient he will be one of the most dangerous players in college basketball. 27 points and seven rebounds for Johnson.
I loved how Kentucky put him on the elbow and in the paint tonight. UK will see plenty of zone this season and he may be the zone buster. He’s good enough to shoot from the elbow, but if he gets a little space he’s liable to dunk on everyone waiting for him on the block. At some point he’s going to need to become a better passer, but I’m sure that will develop in time.
Also, get used to him living at the free throw line. 13-18 was good tonight, but not perfect and I’m sure Calipari will let him know that.
3. Reid Travis:
Could you imagine this team without Travis? Not a fun thought. He is the heart and soul of this team and when I say Johnson’s energy is nearly unmatched across the country, Travis is probably a harder worker. Ignore the buttslapping, but you just don’t see too many players play basketball with that heart, intensity and passion. I apologize for the cliches, but you hope this kinda play becomes contagious to the other guys. He’s not the most talented guy, but the way he operates doesn’t allow Calipari to leave him on the bench. Enjoy watching him play for one year. UK fans have been asking for a player like Travis for years.
And if you don’t appreciate him now, wait until Kentucky plays Tennessee and other physical teams. You’ll appreciate him then.
Folks, Kentucky just isn’t a great defensive team right now and each game I become more concerned this may be the reality. Yes, they’ll probably get better, but they’re a long way off. UK was drastically better on perimeter defense tonight, but Tennessee State shouldn’t score 32 points in the paint against UK. And teams like Winthrop and VMI shouldn’t roast Kentucky from the perimeter.
It’s a mess all around and I certainly don’t have the answers. I thought Ashton Hagans may be UK’s most valuable defensive player and he’s been underwhelming. Keldon Johnson was a great high school defender and that hasn’t translated just yet. Obviously it’s still very early, but UK isn’t playing great teams. For Kentucky to be a legitimate top 10 team we need to see better defense.
5. Moving forward:
The Cats will get plenty of practice time before Wednesday’s game against Monmouth, who hasn’t won a game this season. It should be another easy win for the Cats, but we’ve been saying that the least few games.
There are three things we have to see from UK because the schedule is going to toughen up sooner than later:
- Defense: I mentioned it above but UK has struggled all season defending the perimeter and the one night they improve they give up a plethora of points inside and get beaten off the dribble.
- Sloppiness: 14 turnovers tonight isn’t criminal, but nearly 30 percent of the Tigers’ points came off UK turnovers. Turnovers are going to happen, but you can’t allow it to lead to easy points for the opponents.
- Bad stretches: Sadly this is becoming the norm for Calipari teams for the first few months of a season. It’s been every season since the 2015 campaign. I think it comes down to coaching. We see these guys have stretches when they’re unstoppable, but then we see them take their foot off the gas and allow teams to go on big runs. UK should be able to overpower every team until the UNC game in month, but against quality opponents it could take the Cats out of a game or evaporate a big lead just like that.
Enjoy Thanksgiving weekend and head on out to Cardinal Stadium tomorrow to watch the Cats beatdown the Cards.