This week in Kentucky basketball: Reeling 'Cats hope to right the ship against Kansas
After a promising opener in Wednesday’s 81-45 victory over Morehead State, Kentucky looked sluggish and a step slow in their 76-64 upset loss to Richmond on Sunday. The Spiders are a legitimate NCAA Tournament-level squad, but Kentucky’s schedule won’t get easier moving forward.
The 1-1 Wildcats will travel to Indianapolis to take on No. 6 Kansas on Tuesday night in the Champions Classic. UK was on the books as a 1.5 point favorite in that matchup, but that was before the loss to Richmond. Then, next Sunday, Kentucky will get something of a breather by taking on Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The 0-2 Yellow Jackets opened their season by losing to Georgia State in 4 overtimes and then dropping a 10-point decision to Mercer on Friday.
Here are a handful of stories to watch in the week ahead for UK basketball.
Kentucky certainly didn’t expect to lose to Richmond, but a veteran Spiders squad pounced on its opportunity. Kentucky experienced some of the same problems as early in previous seasons — too many turnovers (21), poor shooting (0 made 3-point shots, 61% free-throw shooting) and poor point guard play.
But here’s the rub. After the Morehead State win, Matt Jones and many other Kentucky observers were championing this team as deep and talented in the mold of Kentucky’s 2010, 2012, or 2015 squads.
Suffice it to say, John Wall, Anthony Davis or Karl Anthony Towns aren’t walking through the dressing room door in Lexington.
But if Kentucky looks more like the team that played Morehead (and the Richmond game was a perfect storm of oddly-timed adversity), Kansas will be an excellent test. The 1-1 Jayhawks took an opening loss to No. 1 Gonzaga and then beat St. Joseph’s 94-72. Kansas likes to run and score, and Kentucky may have decided to shelve those old press clippings in favor of some new highlights.
Return of Keion
Sophomore forward Keion Brooks (4.5 points, 3.2 rebounds per game last year) was literally the only returning UK player who had played significant minutes in the blue and white. But he missed the first 2 games with a calf injury. Brooks could miss another 2 weeks, but long-term, once he returns, his steady hand will help Kentucky’s situation.
Which starting lineup?
Kentucky switched lineups between the opener and Game 2, and given the results of the Richmond game, a return to the first starting lineup might be in order. The shift was from rangy forward Isaiah Jackson in the opener to fellow freshman Cam’Ron Fletcher in the Richmond game. Jackson has managed 18 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in the first 2 games. Fletcher, meanwhile, played well in the opener with a high-octane performance against Morehead but struggled to find a role against Richmond.
Brooks’ return could be another complicating factor, as could a shift in the backcourt. Guard Devin Askew played poorly in the Richmond game, but as he logged 36 minutes, one would imagine he’ll still be starting.
Kansas is shooting 44% from downtown in its first 2 games, which creates some issues for a Kentucky team that’s shooting just 23% from long range. UK went 0-for-10 against Richmond.
Askew and senior guard Devon Mintz are the only Wildcats with more than 1 3-pointer to their credit (each is 2-for-5). If Kentucky can be competitive with Kansas, the 3-point line will probably be a key both offensively and defensively. To its credit, Kentucky is holding opponents to 22% 3-point shooting so far.
The Morehead State blowout allowed Calipari to clear his bench, but against Richmond, he basically played 6 players.
The starters plus Jackson logged 187 of the 200 total minutes.
Given the apparent depth from the Morehead game (UK had 25 bench points and 9 players played 9 or more minutes), it’ll be interesting to see if there are more minutes for reserves like Mintz, freshman guard Dontaie Allen, freshman banger Lance Ware (6 fouls in 21 minutes played) or sophomore transfer forward Jacob Toppin.