John Clay: Finding hope amid UK's holes

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 3, 2010 

It's dangerous to derive much from an exhibition game, especially when it's a Nov. 1 exhibition game against an NAIA school.

That said, on the first night after Halloween, there was plenty to scare a University of Kentucky basketball fan Monday.

First and foremost, Enes Kanter is still not on the floor.

Now let's make a dangerous declaration: Without Kanter, this Kentucky basketball team is quite a way from great.

At present, it's good. Or has a chance to be good. It boasts Brandon Knight. It claims Darius Miller. It has Terrence Jones. It has a more mature swingman in DeAndre Liggins and a promising freshman in Doron Lamb. But it has just enough holes to produce apprehension.

The most troubling hole is in the middle. Even with the 6-foot-11 Kanter, Kentucky is not the biggest team. Minus the Turkish terror, the Cats are significantly smallish. John Calipari started four guards in the 97-66 win over the Pikeville College Bears. He has his reasons.

For one, we have the feeling Calipari is not enamored with senior center Josh Harrellson. Maybe that perception has something to do with Cal failing to praise Harrellson for his 26-rebound effort in the Blue-White Scrimmage. Maybe it has something to do with Cal's quick-trigger reaction to Harrellson's quick-trigger tweet after not being praised. Maybe it has something to do with Harrellson not starting Monday night.

The undersized collection of Jones, Miller, Knight, Lamb and Liggins can succeed. But it must scratch and claw. It did none of that to Calipari's liking, the coach saying, "We had no fight or viciousness to our game."

Knight's combination of speed and scoring can be vicious. A fan should feel good with the ball in Knight's hands.

Jones owns the skill set to be very good. But sans Kanter, the Cats need Jones' 6-8 presence closer to the basket. He seems more comfortable outside, away from contact, where he can shoot threes — he missed all three attempts Monday — or use his deceptive quickness to pass defenders.

But it's hard to get rebounds when parked on the perimeter. And UK needs more than the two offensive rebounds Jones collected against the Bears on Tuesday.

Miller turned in a quiet double-double, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Afterward, Calipari leveled a familiar charge at the junior — "at times (he) stopped playing" — and afterward Miller didn't disagree.

Liggins should draw a ton of fouls this year, taking advantage of the dribble drive. But he's still something of a wild card, as evidenced by his gaining a technical foul for mouthing off to an official. As one press row observer cracked, "Well, Cal's been trying to get him to talk more."

Lamb brought a shooter's reputation to Lexington but he attempted just one three-pointer Monday. He looks uncomfortable, an expected side effect of November.

Then comes the bench. Calipari benefited from an unusual blessing last season. He had an experienced bench that had logged starters' minutes under Billy Gillispie. Not the case this year.

As a sophomore, Jon Hood is still struggling with his confidence. Freshman Stacey Poole logged just four minutes Monday. In his 11 minutes on the floor, the 6-11 Eloy Vargas failed to find an offensive rebound. Harrellson grabbed seven rebounds in his 16 minutes, which must have been a testament to how poorly Pikeville rebounds the basketball.

(Kidding, Cal. Please don't hit me with a Twitter ban.)

Not trying to paint a bleak picture here, because it's not bleak. But reality says you don't lose a ridiculous five first-round draft picks and pick up right where you left off. Even with Kanter, Kentucky would be battling in an SEC expected to be much tougher than a year ago.

If it's without Kanter, well, as Calipari said Monday, it's "going to be interesting."

Reach John Clay at 859 (231) 3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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