Pending a winning appeal to the NCAA, Kentucky glimpsed at a future without freshman big man Enes Kanter in Friday night's opener. The Cats enjoyed the view.
UK beat East Tennessee State 88-65 in a matchup of talented freshmen against NCAA Tournament-savvy veterans.
Without Kanter, who was ruled permanently ineligible the day before, Kentucky more than compensated with effort.
"They competed, which is what I wanted to see," UK Coach John Calipari said. "I just wanted to see some fire."
The Cats smoked ETSU 51-33 on the backboards. Calipari saw that as a product of the practice drills the Cats have done to improve their rebounding.
The fretful among UK fans had to notice how ETSU forward Isiah Brown, a 6.3-point career scorer, poured in a career-high 25 and grabbed 14 rebounds, the latter one shy of a career high.
If Kanter does not play, what will more accomplished big men do to Kentucky later this season?
On this night, the answer was freshman Terrence Jones. After Brown's 17-point first half, Calipari — shall we say — encouraged Jones to assert himself. While Brown cooled noticeably, Jones scored 17 of his team-high 25 points in a second half that saw Kentucky pulled away.
"Basically, what he did was compete," Calipari said of Jones. "Brown was killing us. I said, 'Kid, you may be our post defender. It may be you. You may be it."
When asked what got him going, Jones had a simple direct response. "Him," he said, meaning the UK coach. "He always pushes me. That's why I came here. I knew he'd push me."
Three-point shooting eased any concerns about the opposition overpowering Kentucky around the basket. Although ETSU had a 32-26 advantage in points from the paint, the Cats won easily thanks to 13-for-26 three-point shooting. That marked the most threes made by a UK team in a season opener since 16 three-pointers buried West Virginia in 1991.
"I think we're the best three-point shooting team," said freshman Doron Lamb, who made three beyond the arc in a 20-point night. Asked if he meant best in the country, he said, "That's what coach says."
What Calipari said in his post-game news conference was that the Cats can't expect to swish their way to victories.
"I told them you're not going to shoot like that every night," he said. "If we defend, attack the glass and make free throws — which we didn't do tonight — we'll be fine."
UK made only nine of 23 free throws. Jones made just three of 10 and Brandon Knight one of four.
Kentucky, 1-0, will have a week to practice free throws before playing at Portland next Friday en route to the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
From three-point range, Kentucky had eagle eyes. In the opening 20 minutes, the Cats made 10 of 17 three-point shots. Knight (four of six) and Lamb (three of four) led the way as UK controlled the first half. Fittingly, a Lamb three-pointer erased East Tennessee State's only lead (9-8).
UK's defense was stout. The Cats limited ETSU to one basket for nearly a six-minute stretch late in the half. During that time, Kentucky extended its lead to as much as 15.
The one-sided victory did not make the Cats forget that Kanter had been seen as the ideal replacement for a front-line in need of serious rebuilding. Projected as a lottery pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Kanter was the one UK player expected to have a presence around the basket.
If Kentucky loses its appeal to the NCAA, another way must be found.
"It's going to hurt us a lot," Lamb said of Kanter's absence.
When asked how Kanter reacted to Thursday's news of permanent ineligibility, Lamb said, "I know he's upset, but he's still cheering for the team."
Jones said of Thursday, "It was sad. ... He had a big role when he played."
Now it seems Kentucky must find a way to compensate.
After noting that Kanter went to the Craft Center to work out when he learned of the NCAA ruling, DeAndre Liggins couldn't bring himself to acknowledge the loss would hurt Kentucky.
"Maybe," he said. "Maybe not.
"It depends on how aggressive we are. It might hurt us. It depends on us."