It was another ugly performance for the Cats. Kentucky trailed once trailed by eight to Southern Illinois, but fought back to pickup its first win of the season 71-59.
Here are five takeaways from UK’s home opener.
1. The Win:
That was frustrating, but at least the Cats finally turned it on and beat a pesky Southern Illinois team. The first half was horrendous and the start of the second half was even worse. Kentucky looked disinterested, lethargic and had no interest in taking care of the ball. That’s pretty concerning coming off the beatdown on Tuesday, but UK did eventually wake up and used 26-13 run to close out the game. A run like that is impressive and runs like that are what we expected from this group. We all wanted to see UK come out fired up, but at least they eventually did pull it together.
Fans are going to panic and give up on this team, and they’re entitled to do whatever they want regardless of how asinine it may be, but UK finished on a high note and even in the ugliness there were some bright spots. This isn’t going to be a buttslapper post. I’m going to touch on plenty of negatives, but for the first time this season the Cats have some momentum and I’m excited to see what they do next week.
2. Point Guards:
I really liked the way Immanuel Quickley and Quade Green worked together in the second half, especially Green. I still have some major issues with the point guard play overall, but at least we finally saw some potential in the final 15 minutes. Someone needs to step up and let’s hope that tonight was the start for Immanuel Quickley and Quade Green. Green is comfortable playing off the ball and Quickley finally took control having the ball in his hands. Green did, too. Let’s build off that. Both hit some big shots but the difference is they didn’t force but maybe one or two shots in the second half. They worked within the offense and their bigs, and when they shot it was the smart shot (again, with a couple exceptions).
However, the turnovers are ridiculous and completely inexcusable. Six turnovers from the three guards. Yes, six turnovers from three players when the team combined for 19 (unreal) isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it can’t happen from your point guards and ball handlers. If bigs and wings are careless, whatever, but you have to be able to rely on your point guards. I really, really like Ashton Hagans’ potential and think he can be a stud, but if he’s not going to score (and that’s OK, he’s not a scorer) he has to bring something to the table defensively and with his passing. That’s what he should do and what we expected from him, but we haven’t seen it yet and I’m not sure he can play serious minutes until he comes alive in games.
UK will go several possessions playing solid defense. SIU putting up 59 points isn’t concerning, but my goodness the discipline defensively is still incredibly worrisome. I had a few things that standout:
- If Reid or PJ are guarding a guy one-on-one on the block the guards and other bigs need to leave them be. This team gets lost all the time so they don’t need to make it tougher on themselves by doubling down on two experienced guys that are strong enough to defend by themselves.
- Close out on shooters. It’s horrendous. UK is completely content allowing a few inches, or feet, of space between them and the shooters. Why? If you’re already working hard to defend on the perimeter take the extra effort and force them another two or three feet off the line. PJ has been really bad at this.
- Pick-and-roll defense. Really it’s any defense while defending screens. UK is lost on how to defend it and it usually leads to at least two players being confused. Cal’s teams (with the exception of 12 and 15) usually struggle with this and look much better come March, so I won’t panic about this area just yet.
4. Sophomore Nick Richards:
Nick Richards’ basketball IQ is what it is. He’s not going to be the most experienced player on the floor and he’s still relatively new to the game, but grow at your own pace, big fella. As long as he keeps playing with that effort he’s going to make a difference for UK. He doesn’t have a great touch offensively and he still bobbles the ball too much, but he is twice the rebounder he was last season and he’s finally using his big ol’ frame to make a difference.
I’m not sure how it all shakes out with Kentucky’s bigs. PJ and Reid were expected to be the guys, but EJ was solid tonight and we know he has a high ceiling. Richards deserves to start next game after his performance tonight. Hell, he should take PJ’s spot after another questionable performance.
The three blocks from Richards was nice, too. He should average three blocks against inferior opponents. 19 rebounds are tied for the most in the Calipari era (MKG) and I nearly shed a tear when his layup in the final two minutes rimmed out keeping him from a double-double.
5. Moving Forward:
Let’s just take things one game at a time moving forward with this Kentucky team. Let’s stop worrying about the Final Four, tournament seeding and how good or how bad this UK team is or can be. Fans are going to struggle enjoying this team because they are already thinking they can’t/won’t make a deep March run. Why punish yourselves like that? This is supposed to be fun.
My focus is going to be on watching this team grow and hoping to see that growth each and every night. Kentucky doesn’t play a somewhat decent team for another month, and really doesn’t play an elite game until UNC on 12/22. When that game gets here let’s hope UK looks drastically better than they did tonight, but don’t expect or anticipate that happens by the time UK plays North Dakota on Wednesday night. It’s going to be a process.
Come Wednesday night let’s expect and hope to see UK look better. Let’s hope the communication is better, defensively there are less errors and the Cats need to clean up the mistakes. It’s a long ways to March but the potential is there from this group. It’s going to be a process but it can still be a fun process if you let it.