Defense and rebounding, the foundational pieces for teams with national championship ambitions, powered Kentucky to a 106-63 victory over Centre in Friday night’s final preseason exhibition.
Kentucky dominated the boards and played alertly on defense despite the luxury of a huge competitive edge. Such attention to the less glamorous aspects of basketball seemed more relevant to the upcoming season — which starts next Friday against Utah Valley — than this unavoidable defeat of a Division III opponent.
Defense and rebounding were not pluses in Monday’s victory over Morehead State. Morehead State shot 49 percent (47.6 percent on threes). The Eagles also outrebounded UK 30-25.
“That’s not my kind of team,” UK Coach John Calipari said of Kentucky after the game. “That’s not how my teams play.”
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Surely, the Kentucky he saw against Centre came closer to meeting the Calipari standard for a team.
Closer, perhaps. But Calipari didn’t like the the idea of UK players taking a bow for an exhibition victory.
“We just have so far to go,” he said to begin his postgame news conference.
Calipari saw plenty of areas in need of improvement. A hint of selfish play on offense. “Everybody was trying to get theirs a little bit,” he said of the first half, “and it just looked bad.”
The defense gave up too many drives to the basket. The team may need more offensive structure, which is anathema to a coach who said he wanted “a random-playing team.” That would better accentuate athleticism.
By contrast, Centre Coach Greg Mason said Kentucky looked pretty good. “I think we’d all agree that they’re better than they were one week ago,” he said.
Calipari being a notable exception. Assistant Coach Joel Justus’ warning on Thursday about how complacency could be UK’s kryptonite came to mind.
UK players dismissed the idea that they could be susceptible to complacency.
“Because we know these games mean something, but they really don’t mean nothing,” Nick Richards said of the exhibitions. “Because it’s not really the season yet. We’re just using these games to find out where we are. And right now, we’re not really where we want to be. But hopefully by midseason or it clicks overnight, that’s where we are.”
Even with the disparity in size and skill, Centre had the making of a legitimate test of UK’s defense and rebounding. The Colonels will return their top four scorers from a team that had a 14-11 record last season. (Centre had not lost 10 or more games in a season since 2000-01.)
Centre also has an experienced coach at the controls. Mason is entering his 19th season as Centre coach. His teams have won 14 conference championships, either regular season or postseason tournament.
But Kentucky’s defense stifled Centre much of the game. And the Cats defended without fouling. Centre did not shoot a one-and-one. Centre made 38.3 percent of its shots.
“Defensively, and I think our guys would say this, they are devastating just because of their size and just because of their length,” Mason said.
Kentucky enjoyed a 52-17 rebounding advantage. Centre had only five offensive rebounds.
Wenyen Gabriel, who had nine rebounds, noted how rebounding had been emphasized since the Morehead State game.
“Defense and rebounding are always one of the big things after every game,” he said. Gabriel said a lid is put on the baskets sometimes in practice to make every shot a rebound opportunity.
Kentucky never trailed in a mostly dominating performance. The Cats scored the game’s first five points, established a double-digit lead inside the first five minutes and led 52-24 at halftime.
The only mildly disquieting moment came with about eight minutes left in the half. An extra pass netted Centre a corner three-pointer by Tucker Sine. That reduced UK’s lead to 28-22.
Not to worry. UK scored the next 10 points.
Centre made only one shot thereafter. In all, UK limited Centre to two baskets in the final 9:45 and nine (of 30 shots) in the half.
Kentucky finished off the defense with strong rebound, a striking contrast to getting beat on the boards by Morehead State on Monday.
Kentucky out-rebounded Centre 27-9 in the first half. Centre had only two offensive rebounds.
On offense, Gabriel led the way in the first half with 13 points.
UK exploited a men-against-boys size advantage, outscoring Centre 26-10 in the paint.
The second half brought much the same. Even if the defensive zeal was misplaced (Hamidou Diallo fouled a three-point shooter), there was an urgency to contest shots.
On offense, Kentucky showed the makings of a developing inside-outside game.
Richards, who did not commit a foul in 18 minutes of play, was the primary low-post threat. He turned into the lane and scored on a baby hook in the first half. In a second-half variation, he turned to the baseline and hit a turnaround shot.
Richards scored 17 points.
Quade Green, UK’s most consistent perimeter shooter in the three exhibitions, made all three of his shots from three-point range and had 18 points.
Gabriel was UK’s most active offensive player. Again and again, he converted loose balls or offensive rebounds into points. He finished with a team-high 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
Utah Valley at Kentucky
7 p.m. Friday (SEC)