UK Men's Basketball

Early Kentucky basketball question: Are the Cats rough enough?

In case you haven’t hard, it’s basketball season.

Might have snuck up on you, right? It’s still October after all. The NFL is right smack in the middle of it. College football is only approaching the home stretch. The World Series is still being contested, for heaven’s sake. We’re not even officially to Halloween.

But Kentucky basketball played its first exhibition game on Sunday night in Rupp Arena, defeating Georgetown College 80-53 before a crowd of 19,527, which wasn’t all that bad considering that — thanks to the SEC Network — tipoff time was 5 p.m. on a Sunday.

Of course, it’s never too early for Kentucky basketball season.

And, consequently, it’s never to too early for Kentucky basketball worry season. And one (practice) game into this 2019-20 campaign, we have identified one thing that could be worrisome.

Is this team rough enough?

“We got outrebounded,” pointed out UK Coach John Calipari, and in fact the taller Wildcats were beaten 45-39 on the boards by the NAIA national champions. Georgetown grabbed 16 offensive boards. Kentucky collected six. “Most of it was just scrappiness.”

“We missed a bunch of shots,” Georgetown Coach Chris Briggs said. “… I thought they played tough. I was impressed with their defensive intensity and toughness.”

Briggs meant Kentucky’s toughness, yet Calipari was not so sure.

“The physicalness and toughness we’re going to have to play with, Georgetown was physical,” Calipari said. “They were going to throw a body on you. They were not gonna just let you go get balls.”

Another worry: Did we mention that Nick Richards got hurt? Early in the second half, UK’s junior center came down on the foot of Georgetown’s Jake Ohmer, who had just nailed a three-pointer on the way to a game-high 25 points. Richards had to be helped to the locker room with an apparent ankle injury. He did not return. Afterward, Calipari mentioned “swelled up” but said he didn’t have specifics.

“We were shorthanded before up front,” Calipari said. “Without Nick, we’re really shorthanded.”

Khalil Whitney, the 6-6 freshman from Chicago, played 22 minutes without getting a rebound. Keion Brooks, the 6-7 freshman from Ft. Wayne, played 26 minutes and managed all of one rebound.

“We had a couple of front-line players who didn’t get any rebounds,” Calipari said. “Wait a minute, that means you’re not focused on I’m going to go get balls. They’re focused on other things.”

That brings us to EJ Montgomery, the 6-foot-10 sophomore who managed all of five points and five rebounds in 23 minutes. The knock on Montgomery last season was his play in traffic, through contact.

“EJ’s a better player, but you’re going to have play rougher,” Calipari said. “I think Georgetown came in with one thing, rough him up. Be physical. Bang him. Push him. And you’ve got to know, that’s just about every game you’re going to play. So you’ve got to be able to play through and still make shots. And I think he will.”

It will surely be the way the first “real” game is played. That’s Nov. 5 in New York’s Madison Square Garden against No. 1-ranked Michigan State. The Spartans live to play physical basketball. Cal knows Tom Izzo. We all know Tom Izzo. And Michigan State will play a rough, tumble, defensive-minded game that night at MSG.

Can Kentucky match that toughness? We shall see. The Cats have a second exhibition game, Friday night against Kentucky State, to try and develop a more physical nature. That’s not much time, of course. Not only does the start of the college basketball exhibition season seem earlier every year, so does the real thing.

“Last year I was sitting up here thinking, how we are going to win any games,” Calipari said, remembering last season’s first exhibition game. “About every year I’m in the same mode.”

Worry mode.

Oh yes, basketball has begun.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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