The record book will say Kentucky defeated Tennessee State 77-62 Friday night. But to hear Coach John Calipari and his players talk after the game, all the Cats did was merely outscore Tennessee State.
And that did not give Kentucky a good feeling looking long term.
“Look, folks, the reality of it is we’re a ways away,” Calipari said. “We’re not a very good team right now. We have no confidence defensively, which bleeds into your offense. Then have you no confidence offensively.”
Tennessee State, which ranked fifth nationally with an average of 12.2 made three-point baskets per game, chose to all but abandon perimeter shooting. Instead the Tigers attacked the basket and — shockingly — battled UK to a 32-32 draw in points from the paint.
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“First of all we got to continue to work on straight-line drives. ...,” Calipari said. “We got beat. It’s like we got tired. And they just beat us on the dribble. ...
“We have to be anticipate more, see what’s happening before it happens, not after it happens, which is where we are right now. And then we got to start helping the helper more.”
Reid Travis saw Tennessee State’s strategy as an example of an opponent believing it could seize on a weakness.
“Obviously, that’s not what you want: teams thinking they can exploit us ...,” Travis said. Kentucky’s defense “should be just solid to the point teams are searching for ways they can score on us. Where they don’t feel they have a mismatch or can exploit us in any way.”
Travis said the effort and emphasis is there for Kentucky to defend better. Calipari’s message is getting through to the players, he said.
“The biggest thing Coach (Calipari) has been preaching is forget about your offense,” Travis said. “‘Like put that on me. That’s going to work itself out. Really focus on defense.’”
The attention to defense in practice has not translated to games yet.
“That’s the frustrating part,” Travis said. “It’s such an emphasis for us. We’re putting in the hours.”
When asked why it hasn’t translated to games, Travis said, “It’s easy to say you can simulate (in practice) as far as keeping guys in front, moving your feet.
“Then you get in a live game, there’s other things going on. And you’re running down on offense. You’ve got to deal with that.”
Kentucky was not devoid of defense. Tennessee State, which chose to hold the ball for longer periods of time in order to find driving lanes, had two shot clock violations. And an inability to inbound the ball caused a five-second violation.
“We definitely had some positives,” Keldon Johnson said. “But, I mean, the negatives definitely outweighed the positives. ... We keep striding in the right direction. I think we’ll be pretty good in the end.”
With the season 3 weeks old, there’s plenty of time for Kentucky to improve. Calipari made it sound like his team will need time.
“I wish we were further along defensively,” he said, “but we’re not.”
Nick Richards’ performance evoked memories of how he faded away down the stretch of last season. He took one shot, scored two points and grabbed one rebound in a 10-minute stint.
Early in the second half, Richards entered and exited the game in a five-second span. Late in the game, he received a technical foul.
When asked how Richards can become the decisive and effective player he was in the Bahamas in August, Calipari said, “Demonstrated performance. You got to go in the game and perform. And what I’ve been telling these guys, they got to play like they have nothing to lose like every team we play. They got to take it off themselves.”
Travis spoke optimistically about Richards. He suggested that with so many good players, every Cat might have games where the chance for points and rebounds is small.
“I see Nick every day in practice,” Travis said. “He puts in the same effort in. He’s working hard every day. So he’s doing all the things he needs to be successful. ... I wouldn’t be surprised if you see a big game coming from him soon.”
2014 and 2018
A trip to the Bahamas in August of 2014 served as a launching pad for a Kentucky team that won its first 38 games.
Calipari conceded that another trip to the Bahamas in August of this year has not ignited a similar take-off. He suggested a talent difference is the reason. The 2014-15 Cats had the first overall pick in the next NBA Draft, three other lottery picks and two second-round picks.
The current Cats might not have that kind of talent, Calipari said.
“If that’s what he thinks, I can’t really change his mind,” Johnson said. “We’re different from that team four years ago. We have different players, different faces. We all work at different paces.”
Monmouth at No. 10 Kentucky
8:30 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network)