Sunday’s 92-82 win over VMI was strange. Kentucky was horrible defensively and the game was much closer than it should have been, but there wasn’t the sense of panic from UK fans and certainly not from the team. That was the strange part.
Besides that it was a pretty poor performance. UK was able to score with ease, but that was to be expected against such a small and inferior opponent. But not being able to get stops against that small and inferior team was the story of the night.
Here are five takeaways from UK’s win.
1. The Win:
Yikes. There was no sense of urgency from the Cats tonight and while Kentucky likely thought they were in control all game, one or two stops from the Keydets would have made things interesting. Luckily UK’s offense was in sync, but I have to imagine John Calipari is pretty surprised with how behind his team is defensively. We’ve seen in it every game but this team will have stretches that are nightmarish on that end of the floor.
I still think a good chunk of it is effort, but tonight you do have to tip your cap to Bubba Parham. He was on fire and VMI’s entire team had a stellar shooting night from outside.
Parham’s threes, whatever, he was in a zone and UK made him work for the majority of his threes. But things were too easy for the rest of VMI. Defense is a major concern for this group.
Allow me to go into more detail. Before getting negative I do want to defend UK a little bit (be patient). VMI plays a wonky style, they were on fire and Bubba had one of the wildest performances in Rupp Arena history. This UK team clearly struggles to guard smaller teams and once Kentucky gets in the meat of its schedule they won’t have to worry about weird mismatches having players guard dudes that are several inches shorter.
But Duke wasn’t small and had similar size as the Cats, and they torched UK. There’s no denying that Kentucky’s just a bad defensive team at this point and time. I think the potential is there to be a good defensive team at some point, but I’m skeptical if this can ever be an elite defensive team.
Tonight the Cats struggled defending the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop and that’s been the case all season. Calipari teams are almost always horrible defending the pick-and-roll to start the season but they seem to figure it out come March, so I guess we’ll just need to be patient. But in the meantime, when UK can’t guard the pick-and-roll/pop it’s leading to wide open shots. Most are on the perimeter but the Keydets also had several uncontested layups tonight.
It’s a little disappointing seeing a sophomore PJ Washington get beaten so much defensively. We know how good he is and we’ve seen him have great defensive games, but they seem to be few and far between and I don’t think it’s because of talent. Although maybe Washington gets a slight pass for his poor defense because he was a beast everywhere else. 19 points and 18 rebounds for the sophomore.
How about Bubba Parham? Fans will complain about tonight’s win, and I get it. Hell, I just did when writing about UK’s defense, but you do have to give it up for Bubba. 35 points and 10 of his 11 made field were from the perimeter. That. Is. Nuts. When VMI was beaten by 39 Pittsburgh (yup… Capel’s team), he had 16 points and only hit three threes. Obviously he was on fire tonight and we’ve seen a lot of players do that at Rupp Arena, but UK’s defense deserves some credit.
It’s easier to say this when UK wins, but I do appreciate how Kentucky fans appreciate a good opposing performance at Rupp. I remember UK fans giving Elston Turner credit back in 2013 when he went off for the Aggies, and there have been several players before that have received an ovation from UK fans. Props to those at Rupp.
4. Guard play:
I praised UK’s guards after Wednesday’s game, but here we are again. Immanuel Quickley had a nice string of solid performances but that ended tonight. Tyler Herro couldn’t put back-to-back good games together. Ashton Hagans was one of the few bright spots defensively, but he continues to bring nothing to the table offensively.
But thank goodness for Quade Green. He was the only UK guard that brought it tonight and I’m starting to think the Cats are going to be dependent on him being consistent. 17 points and three threes was exactly what UK needed. That’s too much to ask from Green every night, but double-digit scoring and at least two threes isn’t too crazy.
We have to look at this big picture and realize it’s only November, but UK’s backcourt seems unreliable outside of Green. Defensively there’s much to be desired, too.
5. Moving forward:
Well, here we go again. I said after UK’s ugly win over Southern Illinois fans should take things game-by-game and not look too far ahead, but after the North Dakota performance on Wednesday I was as guilty as anyone thinking that UK had the blowout win they needed and the Bahamas Cats may be back.
This UK team still has some major flaws, but luckily they have months to figure it out. We have evidence that this team will be able to put up points and I’m not concerned offensively. I did like the way they pounded VMI inside. There was a major advantage to be had in the paint and the Cats executed by scoring 42 points in the interior.
But how far this team can go in March will depend if they can eventually turn the corner defensively. The Cats get Winthrop on Wednesday in what will likely be another sleepy atmosphere. UK will (obviously) have a major talent advantage, but the Eagles can put up points. This will be a good chance for UK to try and lockdown defensively, but if the Cats have another poor performance defensively it will be time to panic.
Panicking isn’t fun, so let’s hope there’s better effort on that end of the court on Wednesday.