The first game of the season is in the books and your Kentucky Wildcats are 1-0. Kentucky beat Albany 78-65 in a somewhat sloppy affair, but the play of Derek Willis, Marcus Lee, and Jamal Murray was enough to outshine the errors. Let’s break it down before we do it all again tomorrow night.
Willis went on a tear in the first half
Willis played like a man possessed in the first half, scoring 14 points and doing everything else he could to earn minutes. He cleaned up on the inside, hit threes from the outside, defended, cleaned up the boards, and dished it to his teammates. Willis set new career highs in points (14), field goals (4), 3-pointers made (2), field-goal attempts (7) and minutes played (28). Gone is the passive, tentative Derek Willis of old, and in his place is a complete player fighting for every second of playing time he can get.
After the game, John Calipari said Derek’s play was essential to holding off the Great Danes.
“If Derek doesn’t play in the first half, it’s probably a one bucket game at halftime,” Cal said. “And it, literally, they couldn’t make a free throw or a shot. And then when they started playing they realized, oh my gosh, we can beat these guys. We got them down 20, instead of going to 25. We don’t have that kind of will.”
Cal especially liked how Derek fought through his mistakes in the second half and “just played.”
“I liked what I saw with Derek Willis,” Cal said. “Derek made a lot of mistakes in the second half. But you know what? You watched and said, man, he’s just playing.”
Marcus Lee showed the grit Calipari wants
Lee got the start tonight and, like Derek, made the most of the opportunity, doing pretty much everything well except shooting free throws. Lee finished with 12 points, a career-high eight rebounds, three assists, and three blocks. More importantly, he showed grit when the rest of his teammates wilted away.
“I liked what I saw from Marcus Lee because he fought, he played and he tried,” Cal said. “He was active, blocking.”
Jamal Murray seized the stage in the second half
We all knew Murray was good, but he showed us just how good he is in the second half with some truly spectacular plays. Murray led the team with 19 points on 8-of-15 shooting and chipped in eight assists, three steals and three rebounds. Albany coach Will Brown said he believes Murray is the best player in college basketball; however, Calipari was hesitant to heap too much praise on the freshman because of his five “casual” turnovers.
“Five turnovers and they were all of the ‘Why did he do that?’ variety. They were casual. This game isn’t casual. Like every game we play is a fist fight,” Cal said. “He doesn’t have that yet, but he made some big plays that stretched the game out.”
Towards the end of the game, Murray picked up a technical for talking, after which Calipari went after the ref and yelled “I am going to watch the tape, and if you are lying, you’re done.” After the game, Calipari didn’t deny the exchange and said the ref accused Murray of cussing, to which Cal shot back “If you’re going to tell me one of my kids cussed, you better not be guessing.”
I’ll admit it, I may have cussed after this dunk by Jamal:
There were too many turnovers
Give Albany credit, they were scrappy; however, Kentucky made more than its fair share of mistakes tonight, turning the ball over 20 times. The normally sticky-handed Tyler Ulis had five turnovers of his own to only two assists, a stunning stat when compared to his preseason performances. Also concerning: Albany, a team whose tallest starter is only 6’8″, had more offensive rebounds than Kentucky, a team with multiple seven footers. Fortunately, Albany wasn’t able to capitalize on those errors, missing way too many shots to keep it close.
Ulis may not have had stellar stats, but this save in the first half was spectacular:
As was his WTF face when Albany’s Evan Singletary tried to accuse him of poking him in the eye:
Evan Singletary tried to accuse Tyler Ulis of poking him in the eye. Ulis’ reaction was priceless pic.twitter.com/UPEpPwcAWx
– Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) November 14, 2015
He’s my favorite and it’s not even close.
Alex and Skal struggled
Considering Albany’s strength is on the perimeter, you would think Skal and Alex Poythress would have had a field day in the post. Not so much. Alex only scored two points in eleven minutes, getting into foul trouble and looking sluggish, which surprised Calipari, who said Alex has been killing it in practice this week.
“Alex, he didn’t play particularly well. He fouled and he just was behind the action again. And he has been so good in practice. I mean, really like the old Alex. Dunking balls and rebounding above the rim and for some reason, something is holding him back mentally from being that guy. I don’t know what it is. But he has practiced really good. I expect tomorrow that we’ll see a different Alex.”
I hope so. Meanwhile, Skal scored all nine of his points in the second half. He struggled against double teams, which will only get bigger and more imposing as the season amps up.
“He did okay,” Cal said of Skal after the game. “But if they double team, he’s, it’s more of a scheme. If they double, and that’s supposed to be their strength, we’re going to make it their weakness by doing these things. And he didn’t, he just, he couldn’t react to them. He just held the ball.”
Isaiah Briscoe did not play, status for tomorrow uncertain
Briscoe sat out tonight with a bruised knee, and Cal said afterwards that he’s not sure whether or not the freshman guard will be able to go tomorrow. Briscoe brings a lot of toughness to a squad that lacked it tonight, so I’m just hoping he’s back in time for Duke.
The main takeaway from Game One?
As Calipari said, we’ve got a ways to go. In their first real game, the Cats looked sloppy, but luckily, veterans like Derek Willis and Marcus Lee steadied the ship.
“What we learned today is we have to have some grit,” Cal said. “And if we don’t have grit, we’re not going to win a lot of games.”
We’ll see how the Cats respond to that challenge tomorrow night.