Kentucky survived its back-to-back season openers with wins of 13 and 30 points against Albany and NJIT, two competitive, potential NCAA Tournament teams. However, the competition gets really real this coming Tuesday when the team leaves the friendly confines of Rupp Arena to meet No. 5 Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago.
With a brand new team of fresh faces and several question marks, we got a taste of what John Calipari has to play with, through its first two games this weekend. With those games in the books, let’s take a look at what we learned ahead of the upcoming blockbuster matchup with the Blue Devils.
1.) Derek Willis will not accept the role of a benchwarmer.
One of the major stories after 48 hours of Kentucky basketball is the emergence of Derek Willis. It hasn’t taken him long to go from the talented local boy tucked away at the end of the bench to a potential major contributor in his junior season.
If you really think about it, Willis’ progression is pretty normal for any college basketball player: sit the first two years, earn some minutes as a junior and be one of the guys as a senior. But here at Kentucky, we’ve grown to expect instant results from Calipari’s annual crop of talent, and Willis fell victim to the high expectations placed on him.
Over the summer, Calipari said Willis will have to “steal minutes” if he wants to see the floor. It’s safe to say, 25 points on 8-for-12 shooting through the first two games is a pretty big statement that he’s more than willing to hijack someone’s playing time. He has done everything that’s been asked of him so far.
2.) Jamal Murray is a star in the making.
Without getting ahead of ourselves and raising the bar too high here, let’s go ahead and say Jamal Murray is a special player. He has a seat waiting for him in the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins/Anthony Davis/Karl-Anthony Towns group by the time this year is over.
Through the first two exhibitions and the first two regular season games, we’ve already seen Murray do a number of things only a handful of people are capable of doing: high-arching floaters in traffic, off-balance runners, contested three-pointers and all of the dunks. You could go ahead and build an NBA Draft highlight reel right now and he still has 38 games to play in his freshman season.
Then there’s the whole triple-double possibility. I still think it’s unlikely, but if anyone’s had a chance of logging the second in UK history, Murray’s the one with the best odds.
Enjoy him while he’s here, folks. Next summer, he gone.
3.) The team has some work to do defensively.
Like with any young and inexperienced team, mistakes are going to happen and vulnerability will be an issue defensively. Teams are getting easy looks in transition as the Cats have failed to get back on the other end, among other slip-ups here and there. The full-court press seems to be the way Cal wants them to defend, but even that has some holes. That’s to be expected two days into the season, though. Let’s just hope they can defend well enough to beat Duke in a couple of days.
4.) Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem.
While Kentucky has its share of defensive woes, the offense is already rolling. This looks to be one of Cal’s best shooting teams and their willingness to share the ball will only create great looks to knock down shots. And on a night the shooting hands get cold, they’re not afraid to attack the basket with reckless abandon. Murray and Isaiah Briscoe can drive and finish through anything.
5.) Skal Labissiere is smooth.
Labissiere didn’t show us a ton offensively Friday night against Albany, but he put on a clinic Saturday night against NJIT. Labissiere hit his first seven shots for 13 points in the first half, and ended the game with a game-high 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting from the field and a perfect 4-for-4 clip from the charity stripe.
To steal Cal’s overused quote, Labissiere “still has a long way to go.” But his baby-hook and short-range game is pretty money right now. The rebounding, defense and physicality will come in time. This kid’s going to be a monster by the time February gets here, a la Karl-Anthony Towns from a year ago.
6.) It’s an eight-man rotation, for now.
This may change as the season progresses, but for now, the majority of the minutes are going to Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray, Skal Labissiere, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Derek Willis and Charles Matthews. Ulis, Briscoe, Murray and Labissiere will play as many as they can, while Lee and Poythress will split time at the four, and Willis and Matthews will sub in based on how well they are playing on a given night.
Fans of Isaac Humphries, Dominique Hawkins and Mychael Mulder shouldn’t get their hopes up any time soon. Humphries may get some situational minutes, but Hawkins is behind a logjam of talent in the backcourt and Mulder just isn’t ready to contribute.
This, of course, can drop to fewer players or extend to more as time goes on.
7.) Tyler Ulis is the leader of the team, as expected.
No surprise here. Ulis is the loudest of the bunch and its undisputed captain on the court. The team looks to him to lead and it’s a role he should handle well this season.
His five turnovers were a little uncharacteristic in the season opener, but outside of that, he’s been everything fans expected. I don’t think we’ll see many five-turnover nights from him again, if ever at all.
“Tyler Ulis is, in my mind, the best floor general that we’ve had, since I’ve coached. I mean, the best floor general.” ~ John Calipari, November 11, 2015
8.) Calipari will not accept anything short of 100 percent effort from Poythress.
It’s time we realize Alex Poythress is what he is. One moment he will sky over five people for a rebound, then he will turn around and get beat for a 50/50 ball he should’ve won. The fans hoping Poythress turns into an unstoppable force inside should realize that day is unlikely to come. Poythress can still be good, and I believe he will be, but it’s all about the effort he puts forth and that doesn’t always seem to be 100 percent.
Now, part of that is his recovery from the injury. Being hesitant is expected right now and completely normal for anyone returning from a torn ACL. But John Calipari is not going to stop screaming at him until he is grabbing every rebound and dunking every time he touches the ball. It even seems a little unfair at times, but that’s the way Cal is going to coach him. Cal is all over him and holding him accountable whenever he holds back. Cal wants him to make the most of that elite athleticism he has been gifted with, and use it to his advantage.
9.) Turnovers aren’t a huge problem but they’re somewhat concerning.
John Calipari was disappointed in how his team turned the ball over, more so in the Albany game when Kentucky gave it up 20 times. He wants that number to get closer to 10 or 11, but he also knows that is a lofty goal for a team with so much youth playing at such a fast pace.
In Saturday night’s press conference, he said, “DeWayne (Peevy) reminded me, my first year we were getting like 23, 24, 25 turnovers a game. Now I’m trying to get them to 10 or 11 and they’re all freshmen in their first year.”
10.) It’s going to be another fun year.
We’re so spoiled. Calipari has assembled yet another Final Four caliber team for us to enjoy in 2015-16. Will they make it that far? We’ll find out in March. Until then, the 30+ games leading up to the tournament run will make for some very exciting and entertaining basketball. There will be hiccups along the way, but the good will more than outweigh the bad, no doubt.
Get ready for another incredible ride as a Kentucky basketball fan.
Now let’s go beat the hell out of Duke. They are past due.