Three nights earlier, Kentucky Coach John Calipari said there would be no quick fixes. His star-studded freshman team (plus three under-seasoned sophomores) needed time to make a hoped-for evolution to national championship contender.
On cue, Kentucky showed Monday night that the timetable required to make the Big Blue Nation happy might need to be measured with a calendar rather than a stopwatch.
UK defeated Morehead State 92-67 in the Kentucky Cares Classic, an exhibition game recently added to schedule to raise money for hurricane and wildfire relief.
But (and there figures to be some “buts,” especially early this season), UK led by only two points midway in the second half against Morehead, which has been voted by media, coaches and athletics officials to finish ninth in the Ohio Valley Conference.
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Unlike Thomas More, the Division III opponent UK routed Friday night, Morehead State could say it was as young and inexperienced as Kentucky.
With eight freshmen, Kentucky returns only 7.4 percent of its scoring from last season. Sophomore Wenyen Gabriel had the only previous Division I starts with 23 last season, none after Feb. 25.
Morehead State has 10 newcomers (six freshman and four junior college transfers). Only one Eagle had ever started a Division I game.
Freshman Quade Green made a case for being the starting point guard in Kentucky’s presumed upward mobility this season. Coincidentally or not, the game changed when he came onto the floor with UK’s lead down to 49-46 midway through the second half.
Besides steadying UK, Green hit a three-pointer and then threw a lob that Kevin Knox dunked in a 23-second span that gave Kentucky a 66-51 lead to nurse through the final eight minutes.
“He’s a good player,” Morehead State Coach Preston Spradlin said of Green. “That’s about what I would expect in a point guard here at Kentucky. They kind of know what they are doing with point guards here, wouldn’t you say?”
Green finished with 20 points and five assists. UK’s other point guard candidate, fellow freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, also played well. He had 17 points, four assists and only one turnover in 32 minutes.
“I thought (highly of) Shai’s energy and his ability to make deflect balls and make plays,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “And I thought that Quade, that’s the best he’s played.”
The Kentucky in the first half against Morehead State bore little resemblance to the Kentucky that dominated Thomas More three nights earlier. Rather than establish a low-post game and milk it for points, the Cats did not post up more than once or twice in the first half.
UK did not need to. Morehead State’s 17 turnovers fueled transition offense, which figures to be a key component for Kentucky scoring this season.
UK enjoyed a 21-8 advantage in points off turnovers, which accounted for a 39-28 halftime lead.
“They were flying around with their length,” Spradlin said of the Cats. “It’s going to give anybody problems. A lot of it early on had a little more to do with us. That’s not the beam that we’ve been in practice.”
Despite starting no one taller than 6-7, Morehead State held its own in the lane. UK led only 16-12 in first-half points from the paint. And Morehead outrebounded Kentucky 30-25.
As all but promised, Calipari tried a new starting lineup. Wenyen Gabriel and Gilgeous-Alexander started instead of Nick Richards and Green.
Green keyed UK’s mini-breakout mid-way through the half. With Kentucky ahead 18-16, he scored eight of the Cats’ next 11 points. During a 90-second period in that span, he also made three steals.
Calipari pointed out that going for steals can leave a defender out of position. His UK defenses have been predicated on staying in front of the offensive player and relying on shot blockers.
“We’re not trying to steal balls,” Calipari said. “We’re trying to deflect balls, but we’re not trying to get out of position. And every time we got out of position, they made a three or a basket.”
Green’s steals paid off, fueling a mini breakout that put Kentucky ahead 29-16.
“I’ve got to rely on defense to play,” Green said. “I’ve got to play defense more. My offense is going to come.”
Centre at Kentucky
What: UK’s final exhibition game
When: 7 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network