Kentucky players may need to be introduced to Georgia star forward Yante Maten before Sunday’s game. UK’s freshmen can only hope Maten doesn’t make an unforgettable first impression.
When asked after UK beat Louisville if he was familiar with Maten, PJ Washington said, “Not at all.”
Teammate Quade Green had a vague notion of Maten.
“I don’t know who that is,” he said before adding, “I think he plays for Georgia, right?”
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Correct. Maten was a consensus all-Southeastern Conference selection last season and the media’s preseason choice to be league Player of the Year in 2017-18. He enters Sunday’s SEC opener at Rupp Arena as the second-leading scorer among league players (20.2 ppg) and top rebounder (9.3 rpg).
“I haven’t watched his game yet,” Green said. “Tomorrow, I will.”
Nor did Green know who Tennessee forward Grant Williams was.
First things first. “Tomorrow we’ll find out who all these guys are,” Green said. “Tonight, now, we’re going to celebrate this win.”
The Kentucky players meant no disrespect toward Maten nor Williams. They are relative strangers to UK’s freshmen. The schedule makers have Kentucky facing a trio of talented scorers around the basket in its first four league games: Maten on Sunday, Williams next Saturday in Knoxville and Tyler Davis of Texas A&M on Jan. 9.
UK’s defense in the low post came into question in the second half against Louisville. Kentucky switched to a zone when Ray Spalding got the Cardinals off to a good start in the second half.
“They scored three straight baskets,” Calipari said. “I said, that’s it. We’re going zone. And it looked good.”
Green acknowledged Louisville got offense from the post. “They did,” he said, “and then they started scoring every time.”
But Green objected to the conclusion something was “wrong” with Kentucky’s post defense. “Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “They just had some good post players who could score. We’ve got great post presence down there, on offense and defense.”
Maten, Williams and Davis will test UK’s post defense within the next 10 days.
Maten, a 6-foot-8, 243-pound senior from Pontiac, Mich., has led Georgia in scoring nine times in the first 11 games. He’s posted five double-doubles, which is the second-most by a SEC player.
ESPN analyst Sean Farnham has made Maten sound indispensible for Georgia.
“For Georgia to be successful, he needs a touch on almost every possession,” Farnham said during the Georgia-Georgia Tech telecast.
When he called Georgia’s game against Winthrop, Farnham said, “Everything Georgia wants to do goes through the hands of Yante Maten.”
On a teleconference Saturday, Georgia Coach Mark Fox suggested his team was not solely dependent on Maten.
“Yante is a terrific player,” Fox said. “He’s having a very good year. I think the thing we would say this year is we have a lot more guys around him who are comfortable and confident making plays. So although Yante’s having a good year, these other guys, I think, have really increased their value to us, and we don’t have to lean on Yante as much.”
Georgia’s alternatives include guard William “Turtle” Jackson (12.1 ppg), strongman Derek Ogbeide (6.5 ppg) and freshmen Rayshaun Hammonds (7.8 ppg), Nicolas Claxton (4.0 ppg) and Teshaun Hightower (3.1 ppg).
UK assistant coach Tony Barbee, who substituted for Calipari at Saturday’s pre-Georgia news conference, likened Maten to UCLA big man Thomas Welsh. Both are versatile inside-outside scorers. Incidentally, Welsh (13 points and 11 rebounds) and Spalding (12 points and 11 rebounds) had double-doubles against UK.
How good has Kentucky’s low-post defense been so far this season?
“It’s been OK,” Barbee said. “We’ve got some young guys in there, and it’s been up and down.”
Typical of freshmen, UK’s players are more engaged when defending an opponent who has the ball, Barbee said. The coaches continue to try to improve the engagement of players who can rotate into position to be help defenders.
The victory over Louisville featured good defense on and off the ball. “The defensive intensity was back,” Barbee said. “That was the biggest thing. There was some slippage in the UCLA game.”
Barbee expressed doubt that a player as versatile and productive as Maten can be defended one-on-one. Besides being capable of scoring with either hand from either low block, Maten has made 40.7 percent of his three-point shots (mainly from the top of the key).
“There’s no one player that can guard him,” Barbee said. “No one player last year could guard him. As good and physical as Bam (Adebayo) was, he couldn’t guard him.”
That brings to mind the possibility of double-teaming the opposition’s low-post scorer, which UK has done on occasion. A defense may double as a sign of respect for the low-post scorer, Barbee said. Or it can be an attempt to force a turnover-prone opponent to show he’s a poor passer.
Maten’s 20 assists are tied for second-most for Georgia, so a UK double team probably would mean respect.
Washington saw post defense, like probably every facet of UK’s game, as a work in progress.
“It’s been all right,” he said. “It can also get better. We’re going to get better at it.”
Georgia at No. 16 Kentucky
When: 6 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Georgia 9-2, Kentucky 10-2
Series: Kentucky leads 124-26
Last meeting: Kentucky won 71-60 on March 10, 2017, in the SEC Tournament.