By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
With finals completed, a three-day sabbatical from “Camp Cal” on the horizon and facing a relatively inferior opponent, the Cats could have easily put together a lackluster performance.
Head coach John Calipari had already promised the break for the holidays, which he most assuredly needs himself as well. If the Cats didn’t compete well against Marshall, they theoretically wouldn’t have had to pay for it in sweat equity until the day after Christmas.
Instead, the Cats showed enough improvement to even impress Calipari in a 82-54 win over the Marshall Thundering Herd.
“Oh, we got better. A couple of guys had lapses, and those lapses will kill us in our league,” Calipari said. “But the reality of it is we got way better.”
Despite poor shooting, the Cats dominated the Herd in virtually every statistical category. They outrebounded the tall and physical Herd by five and outscored them 52 to 20 in the paint.
“We walked in at halftime up nine. Could have been more if they made free throws,” Calipari said. “We missed five layups, 1-of-13 from the 3-point line, and you’re up nine. We could have been up 25.”
Ryan Harrow shined, putting together his best performance as a Cat, scoring 23 points on 10-of-17 shooting, grabbing four rebounds and dishing four assists.
“When he’s playing the right way with aggressiveness, that look in his eye, he’s as good as anybody in the country right now,”Calipari said. “I’m looking around at point guards — he’s fine.”
Calipari has been wanting the entire team to mirror the effort given by Nerlens Noel, who contributed his first double-double, scoring 11 points and corralling 10 rebounds. Noel also added two steals and two blocks.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress showed flashes of his potential Saturday, falling just shy of a double-double himself with nine points and nine boards.
“Alex Poythress did some good things and then he reverted at times,” Calipari said. “(He) just grabbed a guy on a foul, because he wanted to stop playing. He left his feet three times becaue he was late getting to the guy.”
Early in the second half, Marshall guard Chris Martin pulled up for a 15-foot jumper as Poythress backed up, giving him space. Martin drilled the shot and Calipari let Poythress know about his defensive lapse during the subsequent dead ball.
Thirty seconds of game time later, Marshall junior forward Elijah Pittman pulled up for a jumper from the corner — once again in front of Poythress. Poythress extended this time, however, for the blocked shot.
“Play the whole game the way you’re playing in spurts,” Calipari said about Poythress’ play. “Just do it. There’s no excuse why you stop on plays. Just quit playing when the ball is in play? There’s no excuse.”
The Cats maintained focus, for almost the entire game — except the opening moments of the second half, where they gave up a 5-0 run to the Herd.
Shortly after that run, the Cats exploded for a 24-4 run of their own and the game was essentially over.
In the process, the Cats handed Marshall its worst defeat of the season. Marshall came in to the game Saturday winning five of its last seven games, with the only losses coming to West Virginia and No. 11 Cincinnati.
“Been a while since we’ve been beat by 28,” said Marshall head coach Tom Herrion. “Obviously a lousy way for us to go into the break but we will come out of it and bounce back.”
The Herd were in both those games well into the second halves, and was within five points against WVU with five minutes to go. Marshall is easily the best team the Cats have faced since the loss to Baylor, and it may be the most complete game they have put together all season.
Perfect timing for some fans, with the annual in-state rivalry game against the Louisville Cardinals looming just a few days away.
“Believe me when I tell you, I’m not worried about anybody we’re playing,” Calipari said. “I’m worried about my team. If we go in and Louisville is way better than us, we move on to the next game.”
Are these Cats ready to upset the No. 4 Cards in the Yum Center Saturday? They clearly are more ready now than they were a week ago.
“We’ve gotten better. Is that good enough? I don’t know,”Calipari said. “They’ve got a veteran team. They’re beating everyone by 30 and 40. Hard game for us.”