UK Men's Basketball

Willis, Lee take star turns as Cats open with 78-65 win against Albany

Kentucky Wildcats forward Derek Willis (35) put up a shot in traffic as Kentucky played Albany on Friday November 13, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Derek Willis (35) put up a shot in traffic as Kentucky played Albany on Friday November 13, 2015 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Opening night for Kentucky was about perspective. Kentucky beat Albany 78-65, but did not do it with enough vim and vigor to please Coach John Calipari, who might have his eye on the stiffer competition to come.

After saluting leading roles by career understudies Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, Calipari said, "We have other guys that are more worried about what it looks like. We just don't have the fight or the grit to really beat a good team. We don't."

From Albany's point of view, Kentucky looked good. Exhibit A: Freshman Jamal Murray, who led the Cats with 19 points, eight assists and three steals.

"He was on cruise control," said Albany Coach Will Brown, who seemed to mean that as a compliment. "He was hanging out and picking his spots. In my opinion, he's a combination of Mark Jackson and Andre Miller with a jump shot."

Calipari saw Murray as a point guard with too many turnovers (five).

"They were all of the why-did-he-do-that? (variety)," the UK coach said. "Like I don't want to say they were casual. Like this game isn't casual. Like every game we play is a fist fight. The other team is trying to beat us. It's the biggest game on their schedule."

Murray said he did not want to answer a question about playing on cruise control. He acknowledged the difference in going from high school to college.

"Coach is on you about playing hard," he said. "More effort."

Box score

John Clay: 5 observations from UK's win over Albany

Willis, a revelation in his 14-point first half, offered perspective.

"It's the same thing every year," he said. "It's the process of learning how to fight. The transition from high school basketball to college basketball. 'I'm a top 10 player. I can just come out here and they're already intimidated by me. I can get 20 or 30 points and do whatever I want to do.'

"Now you're transitioning to college and it's not like that. Everyone is bigger and stronger than you. They've been playing this game. They know more. If you're talented, you have to bring something else to the table. That being fight."

Willis' 14 points were a career high. Brown suggested Willis benefited, in part, from Albany spending its defensive resources on other UK players.

"There are only so many pros that you can prepare for," the Albany coach said. "What are we going to do? You have to pick your poison."

Lee had 12 points and equaled a career high of eight rebounds.

Murray, whom Albany Coach Will Brown had said would be the best player in college basketball this season, showed the all-around talent that could spark that kind of talk.

The officiating provided another non-surprise. With the emphasis on calling fouls in order to reduce physical contact, basketball observers wondered if there might be a lot of whistles and a parade to the foul line, at least until coaches and players adjusted. The teams combined for 46 fouls and 46 free throws.

Albany counted upon senior guards Evan Singletary, Ray Sanders and Peter Hooley to be competitive. The trio had led the Great Danes to the NCAA Tournament the last three years, but struggled against Kentucky.

Kentucky led 38-27 at halftime even though Skal Labissiere had not scored and star guards Tyler Ulis and Murray had made only four of 13 shots.

Willis and Lee compensated.

Willis' 14 first-half points more than doubled his previous career-high of six points. In fact, he did not score in his last 11 appearances last season, and had only 14 points in December through April.

In the opening half, Willis equaled his career high of two three-pointers. His first basket from beyond the arc gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead at 25-14. His second extended UK's lead to its zenith, 30-16.

Lee was busy early. He grabbed four rebounds before the second TV timeout. He grabbed fewer than four rebounds in 28 games last season.

Albany should have felt good or even led considering it achieved its goal of making it a half-court game. UK had only two fast-break points, and that was a Lee basket created by a turnover against full-court pressure. The "fast-break" covered no more than 25 feet.

Noting UK's three point guards, Brown stressed before the game the importance of keeping Kentucky out of transition.

"They're even more dangerous in that regard in transition because all three can attack and push the ball and put an awful lot of pressure on your transition defense," he said. "You have to make them play five on five. If you let them get out and run, I think that's when they're really good and they thrive."

NJIT Coach Jim Engles, whose team plays Kentucky on Saturday night, said much the same thing earlier in the week.

"They seem pretty dynamic, especially in transition," he said. "That's going to be a big deal for us. We'll have to make sure we try to slow them down as much as possible. Play five on five against them."

Honor for Givens

Former UK star Jack "Goose" Givens will be honored before the game against NJIT.

Givens will be the honoree of the ongoing "Wildcat Legends" Fine Art Series, which will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the foodcourt area next to Rupp Arena. He will autograph art prints for fans.

UK plays NJIT at 8.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader