Assistant Coach Joel Justus, who subbed for John Calipari at a news conference Thursday, could not provide answers to questions about Kentucky’s starting lineup this season. Presumably, with different lineups starting each half of the two previous exhibition games, it’s too early to designate starters.
But Justus spoke boldly and decisively about another aspect of the Kentucky team going into the 2017-18 season: Whatever lineup starts and whatever rotation is used, the Kiddie Cats will make noticeable and significant improvement.
“I think this season the fans — and they should — come to games really with an appetite to see a team that’s going to grow,” Justus said. “In every game and every timeout, it’s going to happen right before your eyes. And there’s going to be a sizable growth game to game. That’s what we’re going to need.”
UK intentionally started different lineups to begin each half of its first two exhibitions, Justus said. He made more of the same seem likely for Friday night’s final exhibition game against Centre.
When asked about the first two exhibitions leading to conclusions about a lineup, Justus said, “I don’t know that we’ve come to that. I don’t know that Coach Cal has come to that conclusion. Or if there’s going to be a conclusion.”
At point guard, a marquee position in basketball, Kentucky has two candidates: freshmen Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Justus downplayed the notion that Green (shooter, traditional pass-first mentality) and Gilgeous-Alexander (disruptor on defense to ignite the transition game) bring different approaches to playing point guard.
“Both have their strengths at this point,” Justus said, “and I think that is what Cal is really trying to do: Get them to play to their strengths and continue to work on how he sees them fitting into our team and what our team needs.”
More important than starting, Justus said, was the “pleasant surprise” at how willing UK players are to improve.
“Love to practice, love to work and love to compete,” he said. “It’s going to be a fun group to watch. I know the talk right now is the point guards. But I think our team is going to be a lot of fun to watch grow and grow and grow.”
When asked what might blunt UK’s upward mobility, Justus said, “Any time they get complacent.”
Of course, with its 11 scholarship players all freshmen (eight) or sophomores (three), Kentucky has plenty of room for upward mobility.
Of the many ways UK can improve, there are:
▪ Freshman “big” Nick Richards not fouling as often. He picked up three fouls barely nine minutes into the exhibition against Thomas More. Against Morehead State, he had two fouls in 12 minutes.
Richards said he had to learn the difference between high school and college fouls.
“In high school, I really got away with a lot of stuff . . . ,” he said. “In college, they’re really calling a lot of touch-fouls.”
Justus said it was important for all UK players to learn the difference between “good” and “bad” fouls.
“A whack 80 feet from the basket when you have two fouls or when you have three fouls is not wise,” he said. “A chest on the back going over somebody is never a good foul.”
▪ Learning to outrebound the opponent. Morehead State outrebounded UK 30-25.
No UK player is exempt from rebounding, Justus said. “It really should come from all five positions. That’s a ‘program-atic’ stresser.”
▪ Learning to play while wearing a mask. This pertains to Tai Wynyard, who said an inadvertent Richards elbow broke his nose.
“Not fun,” he said of playing while wearing a mask against Morehead State. “It’s hard to see out of the mask. Sweat gets stuck on your face.”
At one point during warmups, Wynyard flung the mask to the side. “I just couldn’t handle it,” he said.
Wynyard said he wasn’t sure how long he’d have to wear the mask.
Centre at Kentucky
What: UK’s final exhibition game
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network