At this early stage of the season, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said he was not worried about nor expecting flawless execution.
“I’m more concerned about their fight and their aggressiveness and their attacking mode,” he said of his Cats on Thursday.
By contrast, East Tennessee State Coach Steve Forbes worried about Kentucky being ultra competitive after the loss to Kansas on Tuesday.
“I’m afraid we’re going to be a sacrificial lamb probably after (Kentucky) playing really hard against Kansas and coming up short,” he said on Thursday. “I’m sure they’re probably a little mad.”
Apparently, one coach (Calipari) meant what he said, while the other (Forbes) was dealing in fake news.
“We caught them at a good time coming off a very emotional game against Kansas,” Forbes said after Kentucky defeated his team 78-61 Friday. “I knew that coming in, they were ripe for the (picking).”
Kentucky’s victory was no thing of beauty. The Cats committed 22 turnovers, the program’s since Calipari’s first UK team had 24 and 23 in the first (against Morehead State) and third (Sam Houston State) games of the 2009-10 season.
Kentucky won because its defensive effort overcame a lack of offensive precision. The Cats held ETSU without a basket for more than nine minutes in a stretch that saw a one-point deficit turn into a 15-point lead.
“We just have got so far to go,” Calipari said in opening up his postgame news conference.
After a slow start, Kentucky used defense and Quade Green to improve to 3-1 on the season.
Green led Kentucky with 21 points. His shooting steadied the slow-starting Cats and brought a degree of order to a chaotic game.
“If Quade wasn’t hitting, we’d probably have lost that game,” said Kevin Knox, who had a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Green, who had made only eight of 22 shots in UK’s first three games, enjoyed a 9-for-13 revival.
“It’s a shooter’s zone, really,” he said. “If you’re playing me wrong, I’m going to knock your head off.”
Shoot if the defender plays off him. Drive if the defender plays tight. “I just go for the kill,” Green said.
ETSU, which fell to 1-2, was a retooled team. The Buccaneers lost four starters and 62 percent of the scoring from a team that won 27 games last season. Still, the Buccaneers started four seniors and were the 19th-most experienced Division I team, according to numbers maven Ken Pomeroy.
Kentucky remained the least-experienced team.
Athlon picked ETSU to finish sixth in the Southern Conference. Street & Smith and USA Today picked the Buccaneers to finish fifth and fourth, respectively. A week earlier, East Tennessee State lost by 18 points at Northern Kentucky.
Despite that modest profile, ETSU avoided an early knockout. A 16-5 run in the final 7:26 of the first half gave Kentucky a 36-30 lead at intermission.
The Cats trailed for more than 14 minutes of the first half. The largest deficit was 18-8 with 12:15 left.
Green, who had come into the game when Calipari could not wait for TV and called a timeout, led the Kentucky resurgence. He scored 10 points in less than two and one-half minutes to get UK within 23-20.
“He was a guy that gave them a spark when they needed it,” Forbes said of Green. “He played with a lot of confidence.”
ETSU still led 25-20 when Kentucky rallied again. This time it was the transition game that got the Cats going.
A fast-break layup by Hamidou Diallo gave UK its first lead: 26-25 with 5:25 left. That was the third of three straight UK transition baskets that started the 16-5 run down the stretch.
ETSU did not score in the final 3:51 of the first half.
Kentucky extended its lead to double digits early in the second half. Again, the transition game played a part as UK scored the first nine points of the half to take a 45-30 lead.
At the first TV time of the second half, East Tennessee State had not scored in almost eight minutes going back to the 3:51 mark of the first half. The Bucs had only two baskets in the last 11 and one-half minutes.
ETSU did not make a basket until a fast-break dunk with 14:31 left. That meant the Bucs went more than nine minutes without a basket.
“Second half, they came out and they defended like they’re capable of defending,” Forbes said. “That was my biggest worry, that we’d have a hard time scoring.”
Troy at Kentucky
8 p.m. Monday (SEC)