Despite repeated requests not to compare this year’s team to last years, the comparison is inevitable, and this season’s start is a quick reminder of what happens when a talented young class comes together — each player has the individual skills, but potential can’t be maximized until they come together.
While the Cats easily grabbed the victory over Pikeville Monday night, they never seemed to establish a rhythm. Surprisingly, only eight men entered the game in the first half, meaning Calipari has a reasonable idea of who will be seeing the most floor time this season. All eleven players would eventually see playing time, though the bench would only add 11 points.
Calipari may have a grasp on his lineup, but the team has its work cut out for itself. While the status of top recruit Enes Kanter remains in question, the team’s inability to rebound is glaring. While the stat sheet shows UK outrebounding the Bears 52-35, the Cats missed too many opportunities and failed to be physical in the paint.
In order to succeed, the Cats need Doron Lamb to develop vision on the court. When the ball touches his hands, he takes it to the floor and drives to the basket, never considering a kick-out. Lamb posted 16 points but had no assists in Monday night’s game.
UK needs a big man. Gone are the days of being the tallest team in the NCAA. Calipari tried a host of options in the four and five spots, and for now it seems that freshman Terrance Jones is best in the post. With a similar style to Patterson, he will have to play bigger than his height as Patterson did his first two seasons before moving to the four. Josh Harrellson posted 16 minutes, and failed to establish himself as much of a force in the paint, scoring only 3 points and grabbing seven boards.
Another ailment yet to be cured is UK’s three-point shooting. Abysmal shooting from behind the arc led to elimination from the NCAA tournament last year, and this squad doesn’t seem to have an answer, shooting a measly 1-11 from behind the line. Supposed sharpshooter Stacey Poole didn’t enter the game until midway through the second half, however, his four-minute appearance didn’t lead to any productivity from behind the line.
Despite these shortcomings, this team has promise for fans. The players’ size and speed is prime for Calipari’s signature dribble-drive offense, and sophomore Jon Hood has shown an immense understanding of the system. The team’s speed allowed them to capitalize on Pikeville’s mistakes, putting up 19 on turnovers.
Saying the team is effective at getting to the charity stripe is an understatement. The Cats went 44 of 56 from the free throw line, a good sign for Calipari’s aggressive dribble-drive offense.
Fortunately for fans, this team seems to be having fun, and while much work remains, they showed glimpses of being a top-20 team Monday night.
Junior DeAndre Liggins has emerged as a team leader, along with junior Darius Miller, a role this young team needed desperately to be filled in the absence of Patterson.
While last year’s squad had a penchant for letting teams back into games after mounting a big lead, the Cats never let go of their lead after Knight put them ahead 13-12 with 13:12 to go after a 3 from Brandon Knight. Where they failed to put their foot on opponent’s throats last season, they nearly doubled their lead from halftime Monday night, taking it from 16 to 31 by the end of the game.
Knight would later bring the first electric play of the season to Rupp after a steal with just under 14 minutes to play in the second half, which led to a one-handed dunk and a subsequent Pikeville timeout.
Knight is emerging as a scoring threat, though he is less of a purebred point guard but rather a combination guard. While this will lead to a different feel than the days when John Wall was at the helm, Knight shows a better capacity for shooting, particularly from the free throw line, going 9 of 10.
The ability to build and maintain the lead allowed fans to call for hometown favorite Jared Polson to make an appearance with five minutes to play. He would enter the game with two minutes to play, but never scored.
It seems Calipari once again has the parts to build a team designed for a deep tournament run. He just needs to use the early games to build them into a well-oiled machine.