If you go by the academic calendar, University of Kentucky students finished fall semester final exams Friday, but for members of the school’s eighth-ranked basketball team there was one more test on Saturday. A hoops test. A big hoops test.
“Look we are at that stage with this team, we win or we learn,” said UK Coach John Calipari on Friday. “That’s where we are. I’m not taking it any other way.”
Turns out, in their 93-86 victory over high-scoring Virginia Tech, the Cats did both. They won. And they learned.
“We learned we can pretty much play with anybody,” said freshman forward Kevin Knox, who scored 15 of his game-high 21 points in the second half. “If we can just play hard and play to our game, it’s almost impossible to stop us.”
“We’re mentally tough,” said freshman guard Hamidou Dillao, he of the four made three-pointers on the way to 20 points. “We’ve got guys who can bounce back from bad games and play well. We’re getting tough.”
The Cats also learned that, after being poked in the eye last Saturday against Monmouth, freshman point guard Quade Green can wear dark Oakley shades and still score 17 points with five assists.
You looked good, a media member told Green.
“That’s because I played good,” said the freshman.
They also learned that freshman forward PJ Washington can rally from a quiet first half — two points and two rebounds — to make some clutch plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch in the second half.
They learned they can in fact utilize a full-court press, guard the three-pointer (at least for a half) and turn turnovers into points on the way to improving to 9-1.
The Cats did so against a Virginia Tech team that brought a 9-1 record of its own into its first appearance in Rupp Arena. Buzz Williams’ Hokies led the nation in scoring (96.2 points per game) and field-goal percentage (55.3), while ranking second in three-point field-goal percentage (46.8).
So the visitors went out and shot 62.1 percent, including seven of 12 from three-point land, in the first half for a 47-41 lead at halftime. They ended up shooting 58.2 percent on the game. They scored 86 points. And still lost.
“We turned the ball over 25 percent of the time,” explained Williams afterward. “We gave up 36 points off turnovers and 18 second-chance points. That’s the game right there.”
Before Saturday, Kentucky was the turnover-prone team, ranking 271st out of 351 Division I teams in turnover percentage, according to hoops’ most famous quant, Ken Pomeroy. And yet UK committed just 11 turnovers Saturday — three in the second half — against the full-court pressure of Virginia Tech while employing a press of its own that helped turn the Hokies over 19 times.
“We had to find something to disrupt the game,” Calipari said. “If we let Virginia Tech be the aggressor, they win the game.”
Remember, this is the same Calipari who said he’d prefer to play half-court defense with this particular team to take advantage of its considerable length. But then this is also the same Calipari who freely admits he could just as easily be wearing a white lab coat.
“We’re experimenting,” said the coach Saturday.
So far, he likes the results. The relatively soft schedule prior to Saturday allowed the ridiculously young Cats to make the adjustment to college basketball without losing their collective confidence. It also allowed Calipari time to mix, match, tweak and try different things at different times to see what might work best.
While often lamenting his team’s progress — “We’re just so far behind,” was a Calipari early-season go-to phrase — he liked the results enough that last week he played the we’re-not-getting-enough-respect card. Saturday, he said he meant that with regards to the individual players, not the team.
“These guys are talented,” he said. “They’re going to be playing professionally. They just are.”
Indeed, perhaps they are a little better than maybe had been originally thought. While not a top-25 team, Virginia Tech is a good, well-coached squad that offered a difficult test, even on Kentucky’s home floor. And the Cats passed.
Kentucky basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)