Three takeaways from Kentucky’s exhibition victory over Transylvania on Friday night in Rupp Arena:
1. The Starting Five
A day before UK’s first exhibition game of the 2018-19 season, John Calipari said this team probably had nine players who could start.
The lineup he trotted out Friday night — Immanuel Quickley, Quade Green, PJ Washington, Reid Travis and Nick Richards — seemed to surprise many. It’s clearly a work in progress. “We’re still exploring,” Calipari said after the game.
To illustrate that, Calipari started the second half with an almost completely different five. Travis was the lone holdover, and highly touted freshmen Ashton Hagans, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and EJ Montgomery all played in place of the other four.
It’s worth noting that Calipari originally went with four veterans — three returning sophomores from last season’s team and Travis, a graduate transfer who trusted the UK coach with his final season of eligibility — alongside Quickley, the first commitment in the Cats’ 2018 recruiting class and a steady presence at the point guard position.
As Calipari has said many times across many seasons: who starts these games ultimately doesn’t matter much. What matters is who’s playing in crunch time, and who he can trust in certain clutch situations. He’s still clearly figuring that out. And he clearly has lots of viable options. He also has a team full of players who are saying the right things on the subject.
Green, on what starting means to him: “It don’t mean nothing. Anybody can start. Everybody can play on our team. When you’re in, you gotta bring energy. That’s all. … You play, you compete in practice, you find out who starts when the game time comes.
“It could change next week on Friday. You never know.”
2. A veteran presence
A little less than a month away from his 23rd birthday, Reid Travis looked every bit the part of “veteran leader” on Friday night, and Calipari — for the first time in a while — looks to have a player with major experience who will play major minutes while leading by example.
Travis had a solid line of 12 points and a team-high 10 rebounds against Transylvania, but it was the way he got those boards that was most impressive. Yes, this Transy team was smaller than the ones UK will face in the regular season, but Travis played with a gusto that should translate to bigger opponents.
He went after every ball. He continued to fight for rebounds that got away on the first try. He also made smart plays with the ball once he got it, finding open teammates and turning offensive boards into touch passes.
“It’s just trying to bring energy,” he said. “Points and touches and things like that are going to come. … I feel like rebounding, energy and defense are things I can bring every night. So for me, I’m always going to try and hit the glass.”
Impressively, he played this way and still managed to commit just one foul in a team-high 24 minutes. Smart basketball all the way around. And Calipari is surely hoping some of the knowledge that has come with Travis’ experience rubs off on his younger teammates.
The graduate transfer was the only player to start both halves. He was also the only player Calipari kept in the game when he brought on four freshmen early in the night.
“I’m always trying to talk to them, as far as what we need to do, and give my little tidbits,” Travis said. “I’ve been doing that a lot more now the last couple of weeks. That’s something I’ve been on myself about: really trying to talk them through things.”
3. Richards’ transformation not complete
We heard quite a bit this offseason about how much sophomore center Nick Richards had improved his confidence level — and, as a result, his overall game — during the summer.
There were whispers about a “new Nick” out of those early practices. He looked more sure of himself in the Bahamas exhibitions. And he and his teammates have talked about it this fall.
In the first half Friday night, he looked like a whole different player from last season.
Richards was fighting for balls in the paint, blocking shots inside and out, showing off some offensive moves, flaring to the basket with confidence, and finishing plays. At one point, he collected a ball that Hagans had deflected and went straight to the basket — no hesitation — with a pretty finger-roll. This was the new Richards we’d heard so much about.
Then came the second half, and the Richards from last season.
He let a couple of passes fly through his hands — a major problem for him as a freshman — had some lapses on defense, and went to the bench with a dejected look on his face more than once.
The 7-footer grew visibly frustrated after a couple of late foul calls went against him, throwing his arms up and placing them on his head after the second. Washington tried to calm him on the court and later talked with him on the bench: “Just keep your head in and just keep fighting.”
That more-confident Richards could be a major force for this team, if he follows that advice.
“He’s always in the gym every day, and I’m proud of him,” Washington said. “I’m happy to play with him, and I’m just excited to see what he does this year. And I feel like he’s going to have a great year.”