Kentucky’s 88-67 victory over Eastern Kentucky filled Marcus Lee with happy thoughts. “We took a huge step forward,” he said.
UK Coach John Calipari kept a tighter lid on his enthusiasm.
“We’re still a ways away, folks,” he said in his post-game news conference. For instance:
Kentucky made only four of 19 three-point shots. That continued a trend. The Cats went into the game ranked No. 331 in three-point baskets (4.4 per game) and No. 317 in three-point accuracy (28.5 percent).
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That kind of shooting will encourage future opponents to clog the basket area and invite Kentucky to shoot from beyond the arc.
“Tyler (Ulis) and Jamal (Murray) didn’t shoot it particularly well,” Calipari said of the pair’s combined 4-for-15 three-point shooting. “But I’m not too worried about it.”
Ulis continues to experience discomfort from the right elbow he hyper-extended against South Florida on Nov. 27, Calipari said.
“There are times he doesn’t want to make that shot,” Calipari said. “We’re telling him, look, you’ve got to shoot it.”
I was disappointed … . Four from Jamal. Four from Marcus Lee. Three from Skal (Labissiere). I mean, come on. Most of that is just being tough with the ball (and) making easy plays.
John Calipari on Kentucky’s 17 turnovers against EKU
The greater concern is whether Kentucky plays with competitive grit. Perhaps, EKU’s pressing, running style helped. It enabled Kentucky to play at a faster tempo rather than a grinding half-court game.
Conversely, the up-tempo game might have contributed to UK’s 17 turnovers, the second-most of the season (20 against Albany).
“I was disappointed … ,” Calipari said of the turnovers. “Four from Jamal. Four from Marcus Lee. Three from Skal (Labissiere). I mean, come on. Most of that is just being tough with the ball (and) making easy plays.”
Labissiere, the Exhibit A of why UK needs more spirited play after a passive performance at UCLA, was noticeably more active. He had 10 points, four rebounds and three blocks.
“Skal had a great game … ,” Lee said. “He played with great confidence. And he (Calipari) pushed him so much in practice that he played really well in the game.”
But there’s always a “but” from a coach looking for long-term development and improvement.
“But there was a late-game rebound that we really needed to finish the game off,” Calipari said. “Skal let the other guy get it from him. And you’re out (taken out of the game). You can’t be in. We’re trying to win.”
Skal had a great game … . He played with great confidence. And he (Coach John Calipari) pushed him so much in practice that he played really well in the game.
Marcus Lee on teammate Skal Labissiere
The victory again raised the question about what sports parlance calls killer instinct. The Cats led by 18 late in the first half. Then EKU got within six barely two minutes into the second half.
The margin remained a manageable eight points with six minutes left.
“To be down eight at the under-eight timeout, I would have taken it,” EKU Coach Dan McHale said. “We just couldn’t get consecutive stops … and couldn’t keep them off the offensive glass.”
Calipari said much the same thing. “We didn’t come up with stops to put people away,” he said. “It’s been this way all year.”
McHale saw a different Kentucky than the team that failed to take the initiative in a loss at UCLA last week.
“I think Coach Cal got their attention the past couple days,” the EKU coach said. “They’re a tough team. I think going out to the West Coast is a little bit of a lax, but give them credit. They got back to basics. They know their strengths, and had 58 points in the paint.”
Calipari cited the loss at UCLA as a reality check for players and anyone else interested in Kentucky basketball.
“The UCLA game kind of got everybody in check,” he said. “Like, oh my gosh, are we that team or are we that other team?
“And this is what happens when you have inexperienced guys.”
Help on the way?
Freshman Tai Wynyard, a native of New Zealand, will be joining the team on Dec. 18, Calipari said.
“He’s 6-10, 260,” the UK coach said. “Could he be the answer to toughness?”
If so, Wynyard figures to need time to be the answer. He will be joining a team that will take a Christmas break after playing Ohio State on Dec. 19.
Then Kentucky plays Louisville on Dec. 26. “Not probably the ideal game to shove him in,” Calipari said of that annual pressure cooker.
UK coaches will work with Wynyard while his teammates go home for the holidays.
“He could redshirt,” Calipari said. “But the plan is, let’s slide him in there and go.”
Arizona State at Kentucky
3:15 p.m. (ESPN)