Literally and figuratively, the Adolph Rupp Classic was a long way from the marquee college basketball event played this early season: the tribute to Nike founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday, the PK80.
To honor Knight, the likes of North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State, Florida, Arkansas and Texas competed in not one, but two tournaments in Portland, Ore.
Meanwhile, Kentucky played four Rupp Classic opponents that finished last season with an average Ratings Percentage Index of 154. That ranged from East Tennessee State at No. 57 to Illinois-Chicago at No. 238.
“We definitely wanted to play in it,” PJ Washington said of the PK80. “We’ve been watching games, too. … It’s just exciting to watch them, and we wish we were part of it.”
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After Kentucky defeated UIC, John Calipari acknowledged the lure of honoring Knight. “The only reason I would have played in that event was if Phil Knight told me, ‘You have to play in this event,’” the UK coach said. “And he did not say that.”
Besides necessitating a flight to the West Coast (Calipari dislikes long trips), the PK80 was too much competition too soon in the season for Kentucky, he said. And UK is the least experienced team in the 11 years that stats wizard Ken Pomeroy has tracked experience.
“We’re not ready for that,” Calipari said of the PK80. “Now by the end of the year, I hope we are. But we’re not ready right now.”
Over-scheduling can lead teams to losing records early in the year, which can complicate team development, he said. “They’re rattled right now,” Calipari said.
Opponents Vermont and Utah Valley gave Kentucky plenty of competition.
Not counting Kansas, Kentucky has played opponents who had a collective final RPI of 140.2.
Counting Kansas, the collective final RPI of UK’s opponents was 120.7.
UK players said they expect to get the challenges they want.
“We’re going to see those big-name teams,” Hamidou Diallo said. “It’s a long season. And for what we want to do, it’s even longer. We just want it to be the last game in March.”
The announced attendance of 20,212 was almost 3,000 below the listed capacity for Rupp Arena (23,000). Yet this was the second-biggest home crowd of the young season (topped only by the 20,645 for the Fort Wayne game).
When asked about the — for Kentucky — many empty seats, Calipari asked fans to put a priority on leading the nation in attendance again this season.
“Our attendance is down, and it’s really sad because we’re No. 1 in the country in attendance,” he said. “It’s kind of like you guys saying to me, ‘Cal, you only won by 22. Can you tell me what’s wrong with the Cats?’
“I think people will jump in and do it.”
Calipari cited the game day (Sunday) and tip-off time (6 p.m.) as factors in the relatively small crowd watching UK defeat UIC.
“But I get it,” he said. “I mean, there’s some games I don’t feel like coming (to) and I got to come here anyway. Geez.”
Twice Hamidou Diallo roared down the middle of the lane in transition, showed his 44.5-inch vertical leap and threw down a dunk. The crowed oohed and ahhed both times.
But teammate Kevin Knox was left wanting more.
“I know he wanted to windmill,” Knox said. “He can windmill easily. I don’t know why he didn’t do it.”
A windmill would have caught the eye of ESPN, Knox said. “It’d be No. 1 on SportsCenter.”
Diallo could not say why he didn’t windmill one or both of the dunks. “I pick and choose when I do it,” he said.
Calipari achieved the 700th “on-court” victory of his coaching career. Only three coaches achieved 700 victories in fewer games than Calipari’s 894: Adolph Rupp (836 games), Jerry Tarkanian (876) and Roy Williams (879).
Kentucky made two-thirds of its shots in each half: 20 of 30 in the first half, 22 of 33 in the second half.
That made for the second-best shooting game for a UK team in Calipari’s nine seasons as coach. UK shot 67.7 percent (42 of 62) against LIU Brooklyn on Nov. 23, 2012.
Meanwhile, UIC came down from a similar high achieved only four days earlier.
In defeating Olivet Nazarene 107-83 in an exhibition game last Wednesday, the Flames made 69.4 percent of their shots in that game (45 percent of three-point attempts), and had 26 baskets in the first half. UIC shot 34 of 42 on two-pointers (80.9 percent).
Against Kentucky, UIC had 26 total baskets while shooting with 40.6-percent accuracy (27.6 percent from three-point range).
UK moved its assist-to-turnover ratios into positive territory. The Cats came into the game having committed more turnovers (96) than they had gotten credit for assists (93). Opponents had 79 assists and 70 turnovers.
UK had a season-high 22 assists while committing 15 turnovers against UIC.
UIC had three times as many turnovers (21) as assists (seven). The turnovers were a season high for a UK opponent, the assists a season low.
UIC was playing a ranked opponent for the first time since Dec. 18, 2010. On that date, the Flames defeated No. 12 Illinois 57-54 in the United Center. It was one of three previous victories against ranked opponents. The other two were against No. 12 Butler on Jan. 10, 2007, and against No. 25 Michigan State on Dec. 12, 1989.
In losing to No. 8 Kentucky, UIC’s record against teams in the top 10 of The Associated Press poll fell to 0-13.