UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Less than their best, Cats still impressive

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari made some quick substitutions when players didn't do their job as #1 Kentucky  defeated  Boston University 89-65 on Friday November 21, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari made some quick substitutions when players didn't do their job as #1 Kentucky defeated Boston University 89-65 on Friday November 21, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

They're not machines. "Computers" was the word John Calipari used. Even if Kentucky looked like world-beaters in its Tuesday night beatdown of No. 5 Kansas, the Cats are still kids, not robots.

"I was expecting a letdown," Calipari said after it was all over and his No. 1-ranked team had beaten scrappy Boston University 89-65 in Rupp Arena. "I was just hoping it wouldn't be too bad."

It wasn't bad, not if you expected the almost certain letdown from the total domination of the win in the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.

Considering the pats on the back Calipari's club got after that dazzling performance — Headlines: How badly would Kentucky beat the 76ers? — it was a wonder the Cats could fit their heads into Rupp Arena.

"We struggled," Calipari said, but later added the proper qualifier. "That was a high-energy game we played Tuesday."

The Cats struggled for a half, anyway, and maybe much of that had to do with the visitors.

Boston U. Coach Joe Jones, former longtime assistant at places like Villanova and Boston College, came in with a smart game plan. Play zone. Spread the floor. Shoot three-pointers, which the Terriers had proven they could do in their first two games by making 40 percent of them.

Result: Kentucky shot 57 percent in the first half and still led by just five points at the break. The zone helped the visitors on the boards. Despite its height advantage, UK had just two offensive rebounds the first half. Boston had 10 defensive boards.

Simply, Boston played with more energy and aggressiveness. Like Buffalo last Sunday, but unlike Kansas on Tuesday, the Terriers took the ball to the basket with authority and kept Kentucky, yes Kentucky, on its heels.

"We did not fight in the first half," Calipari said.

The second half brought a course correction. The UK coach opened the final period with his second platoon, as has been the custom so far, but after two Boston baskets in the first 1:03 the first platoon hustled to the scorer's table to check back into the game.

From there, Kentucky began to look a little more like Kentucky. After Boston had cut the lead to 46-44 at the 16:14 mark — that's Boston U., not the Boston Celtics — the Cats went on an 8-0 run to start asserting proper control.

Then a relaxed Devin Booker started standing out. Known as a smooth shooter, the freshman was just 1-of-11 from three over the first three games, but ended up making four three-pointers and contributing seven assists Friday.

At least two of those assists came on pretty lob passes over the Boston zone for Trey Lyles dunks, a play Calipari and his staff put in during practice Thursday.

"I finally got a shot to go in, that felt good," Booker said. "Then I wanted to get other people involved."

What was interesting after that was the way Calipari mixed different players with different parts of the platoons. The core for each platoon was there, but he mixed and matched much more than the first two games.

"Ended up playing about nine guys," said the coach.

In the end, it was a 24-point victory and, as Calipari correctly surmised, "We're all upset. That probably means we're not bad."

"I've never seen a team that deep and that long," said Jones afterward. "You guys are going to have a lot of fun nights."

Not every night will be as giddy as the one in Indianapolis, however. If no team is as bad as its worst performance, no team is as good as its best performance. It's the law of averages.

"Tuesday, we looked like a November team on offense and a January team on defense," Calipari said. "Tonight we looked like a November team."

It is November. And if the Cats looked a bit more human, when it comes to basketball, they're still pretty talented humans.

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