By: Dick Gabriel
Take a look at the team John Calipari sent out onto the Rupp Arena floor Friday night. Just before the opening tipoff, bathed in blue light, they gathered at the free throw line across from the Kentucky bench, about to embark on their first and only season together. Then they went out and played some interesting basketball.
They were ragged. They looked like a team full of players who still aren’t sure of themselves, of what their coach expects of them or how to synch up with their talented teammates.
Yes, they hammered Stephen F. Austin, 87-64. This wasn’t exactly the same SFA squad that became a bracket-busting terror in the NCAA tournament, shocking Virginia Commonwealth in 2014 and West Virginia last year. But most of the Lumberjacks at least had been a part of at least one of those teams, and after the initial howdy-do minutes in Rupp Arena that most new opponents have to endure, they settled down and challenged the youngsters in blue and white.
Kentucky responded, with prodding from their coach, who was in full throat. Calipari at times used a lightning-quick hook, all the better to explain mistakes, by freshmen and veterans alike.
Yes, it was ragged. But in February, we’ll think back on the early games like this one. The pieces by then will have settled in, roles defined, expectations established. This team should be humming like a dishwasher in a dark kitchen on a Saturday night.
It’s hard to find any liabilities, except one – consistent outside shooting. A team that could boast two deadly marksmen last year – Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray – hit only five of 18 from beyond the arc. It will lean heavily on Derek Willis, who in a conventional lineup is the power forward. But mere words can’t confine him. Positionless basketball, remember? Willis will set up shop beyond the arc this season as Kentucky’s best three-point threat.
If successful, he’ll spread the floor to create driving lanes for his creative friends, including the three guards who figure to be in the starting lineup along with the beastly Bam Adebayo.
And when there’s a need for help, it’s only a few steps away. Calipari sent practically every scholarship player into the game Friday night for meaningful experience. And now he has 40 real minutes of video he can use to teach, slipping the remnants of the Asbury dunk-fest into the bottom drawer. Maybe they can look at that again sometime next summer.
We saw slices of the future – De’Aaron Fox harassing the opposing point guard and delivering a nifty, behind-the-back pass to Malik Monk, who promptly buried a trey (one of only four makes in 14 tries); Isaiah Briscoe slashing to the rim (and draining a three, for goodness’ sake); Isaac Humphries working the glass in relief of Adebayo, saddled with fouls all night.
And there was Willis, picking up where he left off last season, scoring nine of Kentucky’s first 13, on his way to a 15-point performance.
Wenyen Gabriel predicted pre-season that fans would appreciate his motor, which drives him to do a little bit of everything. That’s what he did Friday, going five-for-six from the floor, each shot different from the last.
We even saw some fullcourt pressure from the Wildcats, a tantalizing thought given all the depth at Calipari’s disposal. The possibilities may not be endless but right now, there’s no end in sight.
They can score, we know that. And they seem to like looking out for each other on the fast break. Perhaps they’ll mirror the 38-1 team, talented fellows who seemed to enjoy racking up an assist as much as they did a field goal.
This team isn’t that team. Not yet. That one had shooters, Karl-Anthony Towns and a willingness to play in-your-jock defense. Towns isn’t walking through the Rupp Arena door, but if this team learns to stop people, we’re all going to like what we see, come February – and well into March.