By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel
It has been a less than ideal non-conference performance this season for the UK men’s basketball team. In between the four losses, they have used games against lesser opponents to work towards the level of play which head coach John Calipari desires them to be.
Wednesday night, they may have gotten the closest they’ve been to that level.
The Cats easily beat Eastern Michigan, 90-38, in front of 22,135 fans at Rupp Arena. As the final tune-up before they kick off SEC play at Vanderbilt next week, UK used stifling defense to run away early, holding EMU to 24 percent shooting for the game.
“We’re starting to play with a swagger that we didn’t have,” graduate student Julius Mays said. “That has come with this break we’ve had where we’ve been able to practice a lot and learn a lot about each other.”
After taking a 22-point lead to the break, the Cats broke out of the second half on a 15-0 run, all but putting the score out of reach.
The scoring was widespread for UK. Five players scored in double-figures, led by sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer with 17. Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein finished with a double-double, posting 11 points and 11 rebounds.
“(Willie) has been great,” Calipari said. “I like the big team. That’s what we’ve been practicing the last couple of days.”
Sophomore guard Ryan Harrow had another solid game at point, finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
“I’ve been working and doing extra stuff with Coach Cal,” Harrow said. “He said he’s not going to let up on me. We’ll be working extra hard to get me to be even better than what I am now.”
Freshman forward Alex Poythress has been of emphasis lately for Calipari. The two have begun to work out privately, and his numbers showed improvement. Poythress finished with 16 points and five rebounds, and Calipari was pleased with the effort.
“He at least played with some energy,” Calipari said. “You could see it. He still has some glitches, but the team gave him a hand. He came after it in this game.”
The Eagles had played two top-five teams, Syracuse and Michigan, losing to each by 35+ points. EMU head coach Rob Muphy said, in comparing the three, that UK was just as good.
“I like Kentucky because of their size and athleticism,” Murphy said. “With Ryan Harrow continuing to improve, I think they’ll be a top 10 team and one of the teams that will make a push to the Elite Eight, if not the Final Four.”
The Cats now look to conference play, where they will travel to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt next Thursday. The Commodores are down this year compared to the past, but the conference schedule as a whole poses a challenge to a young team still finding themselves.
“It’s about discipline,” Calipari said. “It’s about playing together. It’s not about the score of a ballgame. If it were about that, I would have been angry after the last game. This is a process with this team.”