COLUMN: Post play a question mark without Kanter

No one said life after Enes Kanter was going to be easy.

A day after UK’s 6-foot-11 freshman forward from Turkey was ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA (though an appeal is pending), the Cats were forced to open the season with senior Josh Harrellson and junior Eloy Vargas as the only true ‘big men’ on their 10-man roster.

After the Kanter ruling, you could troll any newspaper, blog or TV station and hear experts saying that the Cats’ main weakness was their under-sized lineup.

It showed Friday night, despite a 88-65 season-opening win over East Tennessee State.

At halftime, Harrellson and Vargas’ combined stats were: 11 minutes, four fouls, two points and four rebounds.

At the final whistle, Harrellson and Vargas’ combined stats were: 29 minutes, six fouls, two points and 11 rebounds. Yikes.

“We need (Kanter). Everybody knows we need him. We need that inside presence,” junior guard DeAndre Liggins said. “You all seen that today that No. 41 (East Tennessee State’s Isiah Brown) had a great game against us because we didn’t have that authentic low post presence. We need Enes, but if things don’t work out we just got to find a way.”

With respect to the Buccaneers, who didn’t use a player taller than 6-foot-8 in their rotation, a lack of a definitive post presence wasn’t detrimental to the Cats because of the undersized, less-athletic opponent and UK’s gang rebounding mentality among its players, notably freshman forward Terrence Jones and junior guard Darius Miller, who both finished with double-digit rebounds.

The 6-foot-8 Jones, a non-traditional big man, is more of a wing player with the skills necessary to play inside and outside (a la Lamar Odom), but it’s hard to say if he can continue to put up gaudy numbers as the size and strength of UK’s opponents increase.

Jones’ teammates believe he can excel in the role Kanter would’ve filled.

“Terrence can be that guy,” Liggins said. “He has long arms, he’s big but he just needs to find a way to defend the post.”

UK head coach John Calipari told Jones following the game that he may be resigned to put him in the post.

“What I told him after the game: ‘Kid, you may be our post defender. It may be you,’” Calipari said.

But really, the post play of Jones will be a moot point if the Cats replicate their hot shooting. UK made 13 threes in the game, including 10 in the first half, and five different Cats made 3-pointers.

“I think we are the best 3-point shooting team in the country,” freshman guard Doron Lamb said.

Ironically, UK couldn’t buy a three at times last season, but could most always count on the inside game. The loss of Kanter represents just one change in the major overhaul of this year’s team.

“I told them in there, ‘You’re not going to do this every game. You’re not going to shoot that well, but if you defend, attack that glass and make free throws like we didn’t today, you’ll be fine,” Calipari said. “You don’t have to make 50 percent of your threes, make 35. We were making 10, 19 (percent) at times last year.”

However, it would be reassuring to know that reliable post play does exist for that inevitable night when a cold shooting touch strikes the team (think last year’s Elite Eight matchup with West Virginia).

To be fair to Vargas, his father did die earlier this week and he’s still readjusting to life in Division I basketball after spending last year at junior college. On the other hand, Harrellson has never had to be a go-to-guy in his time in Lexington, so he is adjusting to heightened expectations. Both might come around.

Prior to the opener, Calipari somewhat underplayed the importance of having Kanter available to his team. One game into the season and he might be rethinking his statements.

As life after Kanter goes on.