Numbers maven Ken Pomeroy made it official this weekend. Of the 230 Division I teams that played Friday and/or Saturday, Kentucky was the least experienced.
UK’s players in the opening-night victory over Utah Valley averaged 0.19 seasons of college experience. The smallest average experience since Pomeroy began keeping track 12 seasons ago was 0.27 by The Citadel in 2007-08.
In defeating Vermont 73-69 on Sunday, Kentucky showed its age. Or lack thereof.
Kentucky survived as much as it won. The Cats never got into a rhythm as suggested by being called for charging four times. On defense, the matchup of freshman Quade Green and Vermont senior Trae Bell-Haynes proved, uh, problematic.
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On the plus side, and the side that counts most, Kentucky won despite a huge disadvantage in experience (which figures to be a continuing theme this season).
Vermont players made a cumulative 136 starts last season, and 254 in their careers. UK’s eight freshmen and three sophomores had 28 previous starts. And that included the five first-time starters in Friday’s opener against Utah Valley.
“A lot of teams, they think we’re young and we don’t know a lot about basketball,” said PJ Washington, whose double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) led UK. “But we’re all great players, and together, we’re a great team.”
UK Coach John Calipari and his players spoke of the victory over Vermont as a learning experience.
“You cannot play Popcorn State and learn anything,” Calipari said. “You’ve got to play good teams.”
Speaking of which, Kentucky plays No. 4 Kansas in Chicago on Tuesday. The victory over Vermont did not seem like a confidence booster. But UK accentuated the positive. Green spoke of how the Cats kept their composure as Vermont narrowed a 14-point UK lead to three, and had two shots at tying the score in the final seconds.
Calipari saluted the corner three-pointer Kevin Knox made with Kentucky ahead 69-66. The UK coach did not mention it was the only basket the Cats made in the final 7:24. In that span, UK missed seven of eight shots.
Then again, to borrow from Calipari, Vermont is not Popcorn State. Collegeinsider.com ranked the Catamounts No. 3 in its preseason top 25 of mid-major teams. Vermont returned four starters from a team that won 29 games and made the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky led for more than 37 minutes. But never by more than 14 points and 72-69 with 1:17 left.
That was still the score when Vermont called time with 17.8 seconds. The Catamounts got two shots at tying it. Ernie Duncan missed an open three-pointer from the right wing with six seconds left on the clock.
When UK did not secure the rebound, Vermont got a second chance. Payton Henson missed a more contested shot from about the same spot.
After a messy, disjointed first half, Kentucky led 36-24. The final 72 seconds served as fitting punctuation. Vermont called timeout, presumably to set up a shot. It was a missed three (the Catamounts were three of 13 from three-point range in the half).
Then UK called time. A walking call against Green (he shuffled his feet starting a drive) snuffed out the plan.
The chances for highlight material dimmed early. Bell-Haynes picked up his second foul at the 16:49 mark. Maybe this made him cautious as he ended the half with six points and one assist.
Momentum swung back and forth. UK took the early initiative and led 13-4 inside the first seven minutes.
Then Vermont scored nine straight points in the next three-plus minutes.
The teams traded baskets and timeouts early in the second half.
As the football people might say, Green figured on both sides of the ball. His three-pointer and purposeful drive put UK ahead 47-33 and prompted a Vermont timeout with 16:27 left.
But in that same period, Green got beat by Bell-Haynes for a layup off an inbounds pass, then again on a fast-break drive that prompted a UK timeout with 15:34 left.
That signaled that it would not be easy. “We’re not staying in front of guards right now,” Calipari said, “and it’s scary because the teams we have coming up all have guards that are going to try to break you down and score by themselves and try to get 30 (points). …
“You have to guard somebody, wouldn’t you say?”
Green acknowledged his defense must improve. “I’m still learning defense,” he said. “I’m pretty slow on defense, as you all can see.”
Bell-Haynes, the preseason pick to be the American East Conference Player of the Year, led Vermont with 16 points and five assists.
“Obviously, I thought that was going to be a big advantage for us,” Vermont Coach John Becker said of his team’s experience.
The advantage showed, but it didn’t win the game. Or as Green said, “One senior ain’t going to affect all of us. So we all had to team defense today.”
Kentucky vs. Kansas
9:30 p.m. Tuesday in State Farm Champions Classic in Chicago (ESPN)