Kentucky’s final tune-up before facing heavyweight competition was just that: a tune-up.
UK dispatched Hofstra 96-73 Sunday in what was called the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival.
What’s immediately next for the Cats promises to be much hotter competition, weather-wise and otherwise. Going into this weekend, UK’s two opponents, North Carolina and Louisville, had a Ratings Percentage Index of 12 and seven, respectively.
Hofstra, which had an RPI of 212, was the last of the 10 UK opponents to date that had an average RPI of 151.9.
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Isaiah Briscoe, a sophomore from Newark, N.J., led the Cats past Hofstra. His second homecoming game was as charming as the first a month earlier. He scored 19 points (two shy of a career high), got credit for six assists (one shy of a career high) and had court presence throughout.
In Madison Square Garden, Briscoe equaled a career high of 21 points in a mid-November victory over Michigan State.
“I’m just out there playing, honestly ... ,” Briscoe said. “It’s a plus playing good at home in front of my fan base and in front of my family.”
The two coaches saw two different Kentuckys.
Hofstra Coach Joe Mihalich saw a national championship contender.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said as a qualifier. “I said to Cal after the game, ‘I think you’re going to win this whole thing.’”
UK Coach John Calipari demurred on the court to his coaching colleague and to reporters in the postgame news conference.
“He said, ‘We have a lot of things we have to work out,’” Mihalich said. “But he’s not a Hall of Fame coach for nothing. He’ll get it all worked out, and at the end of the year, they may be cutting down nets.”
Calipari cited several areas in need of improvement. The forward spot shared by Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis remains “a tough position,” he said, meaning a problem on defense and rebounding. Players need to play with more confidence and with a greater appreciation for the value of possessions. The Cats got sloppy and got beat to long rebounds.
Calipari acknowledged it didn’t matter against Hofstra.
“I told them 20 times in this game, ‘I’m not coaching you for this game,’ ... ” the UK coach said. “‘We’re up 25. What do you want me to do? Sit and cross my legs? I’m not coaching you for this game. This is for the next two, the next three, the next five.
“‘And what we’re doing right now, we can’t win playing this way.’”
That Kentucky would steamroll his team did not surprise Mihalich. On Thursday, he all but predicted a lopsided defeat.
“They beat Arizona State by 60 (actually by 46),” Mihalich said of the Cats. “Not Winona State. Not Transylvania State. They beat Arizona State by 60. So it’s just a powerful, impressive, talented team. This will be the only game I won’t enjoy watching them play.”
Kentucky’s 48-33 halftime lead was par for the course this season. The Cats went into the game averaging a halftime lead of 48.1-32.5.
But how UK got there might have been a surprise. Hofstra competed and got within 36-33 inside the final four minutes.
But Kentucky restored predictability by scoring the final 12 points of the first half. When the Cats outscored Hofstra 14-3 in the first four minutes of the second half, the chances of competitive basketball vanished.
“I’m going to think of those three minutes (to end the first half), those seven minutes forever,” Mihalich said.
Malik Monk and Briscoe, the two main guns for Kentucky in the first half, led the breakout. Monk, who scored UK’s final seven points of the first half, hit a three-pointer from the right wing with 4.5 seconds to set the halftime score. “Two big shots,” Calipari said.
As if to signal immediately that his dispassionate performance against UCLA would not be repeated, Briscoe led Kentucky with 15 points in the first half.
Calipari recalled meeting with Briscoe to discuss the player yawning during a huddle in the UCLA game.
“I said, ‘Look, man,’” Calipari said. “‘If you take away your toughness, your leadership, your talking, your diving on the floor, your tough play around the goal, you take that away from you, what are you left with?’”
With those qualities, plus meeting the goal of better shooting, “‘All of a sudden, you’re as good as anybody in the country,’” Calipari added.
With Hofstra beaten, Kentucky is about to show, at this still-early stage, if it’s as good as anybody in country.
No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 7 North Carolina
5:45 p.m. Saturday in Las Vegas (CBS-27)