Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 73-63 win over Utah Valley in the regular-season opener on Friday night:
1. “Part of this early is going to be about survival.”
That was UK Coach John Calipari while speaking in the postgame press conference on Friday night. And he was right. Kentucky survived. The Cats shot 20.6 percent the first half. They looked tentative and unsure, missing a ton of shots around the rim. Thanks to a zone defense, they forced turnovers and went on an 18-0 spurt in the second half and continued on to the win. Or the survival.
And that’s the way it’s going to be early on for this impossibly young team. Calipari went full-rookie with his starting lineup, going with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox, Nick Richards and PJ Washington. He brought the two graybeards, sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, off the bench. First 20 minutes, the youth really showed.
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“I had little butterflies in my stomach,” admitted Richards.
The Cats made just seven of 34 shots the first 20 minutes. Gabriel missed all six of his attempts. So did Knox. Diallo was 2-for-8 from the floor. As a team, the Cats were 2-for-8 from three-point range in the first half.
Calipari, who hates zone defense, went to the zone in the second half. Utah Valley Coach Mark Pope admitted afterward his team had not practiced much against the zone. That showed, too. Kentucky’s length makes the zone effective and the Wolverines promptly turned the ball over and over and over and suddenly UK had turned a 34-25 halftime deficit into a 43-37 lead and continued on from there to get the win.
2. Yes, this team can be an effective zone team on defense.
No real surprise there. Given the wingspan of many of its players, the thought was that this particular Kentucky team could be a good zone defensive team. That is if Calipari would play a defense that he would just really rather not play.
“I’ve gone some years where I didn’t play a down of zone defense,” he said Friday. “I’ve gone some years where we played it against one team because that team struggled against the zone.”
“I don’t think it was the zone,” said Diallo on Friday. “I would say more it was us.”
Still, the zone is going to be a weapon. It’s hard to see Calipari playing it all the time. He’s still very much a man-to-man guy. That’s the defense he teaches and has won a lot of games with, but …
“I’ll do what I have to do to help my team win,” he said Friday.
“The zone is definitely going to be a big help for us this year,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We have a lot of length and us guarding spots instead of a man is going be tough for the other team’s offense to score on us.”
3. Doing backflips all the way, Vermont arrives on Sunday.
It’s a quick turnaround for the Cats, who take on Vermont at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Rupp Arena. Two days later, Kentucky travels to Chicago to play fourth-ranked Kansas.
Calipari joked that he heard Vermont was doing “backflips in their rooms” watching Kentucky fall behind Utah Valley on Friday. The Catamounts were 29-6 last season, including an 80-70 loss to Purdue in the NCAA Tournament.
On the one hand, UK will have had a game under its belt on Sunday. On the other hand, Vermont will be well-rested and much more experienced. It returns four starters in Trae Bell-Haynes, Payton Henson, Anthony Lamb and Ernie Duncan. Lamb averaged 12.4 points per game last season as Vermont finished ninth in the nation in field goal percentage at 49.4 percent.
Kentucky, meanwhile, will study the video to try and figure out what went wrong in Friday night’s first half. Was it just bad luck around the rim? Was it nerves? Was it the first half of the first game of the college career for an all-freshmen starting five? Or was it something more than that?
“We’re playing the second game against an NCAA Tournament-level team,” said Calipari, who then mentioned other similar teams the Cats have on the pre-conference schedule. “Guess what? Good for us, let’s play them. Let’s embrace it.”