John Clay

Five questions about Kentucky basketball on the way to LSU

Wenyen Gabriel: We’re struggling to find our identity

Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel after 66-61 win over Georgia.
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Kentucky sophomore Wenyen Gabriel after 66-61 win over Georgia.

With Kentucky playing its first game of the season on an opponent’s home floor Wednesday at LSU, five quick questions about the Cats:

1. Why did Kentucky drop in the AP poll after beating Louisville and Georgia?

Some of UK’s slip from No. 16 to No. 17 has to do not so much with the Cats but the other ranked teams. The four teams that lost in the poll (No. 1 Villanova, No. 3 Arizona State, No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 10 TCU) were all in the top 10. Arizona leap-frogged Kentucky from 17th to 14th in the poll, but Sean Miller’s club had handed Arizona State its first loss of the season.

And, yes, some poll voters have yet to develop an appreciation for this Kentucky team. They saw last week’s wins over visitors Louisville and Georgia as expected. Through 13 games, Kentucky has not beaten a Top 25 team.

“Either they think you can’t play or I can’t coach, or both,” said a half-joking John Calipari on Tuesday. “Use it as fuel.”

2. What’s wrong with Kevin Knox?

The highest-rated prospect among UK’s newcomers, Knox is in a freshman funk. Previously averaging 15.7 points, Knox has scored a combined 15 points the last two games. In those, he made four of 18 shots, including one of seven from the three-point range.

Foul trouble limited Knox to 17 minutes against Louisville. He didn’t fare well against Georgia’s physical style. Opponents now have 13 games of video to scout Knox’s tendencies. They’ve adjusted. He must learn to adjust right back.

3. What has made Shai Gilgeous-Alexander so effective?

If Knox’s stock is down, his Canadian teammate’s stock is on a rapid rise. The 6-foot-6 guard earned MVP honors with 24 points against Louisville. He followed up with a 21-point effort against Georgia on New Year’s Eve.

On Saturday, UK assistant coach Tony Barbee compared Gilgeous-Alexander to former UK assistant Rod Strickland, a former DePaul and NBA star. The two have similar bodies and a knack for the getting the ball to the rim.

On Friday, Calipari noted that while basketball in Canada keeps improving — Cal credited the Toronto Raptors’ influence — the players there don’t receive the same hype as American prospects. If Gilgeous-Alexander was undersold in recruiting, he’s overdelivered.

4. How much will Kentucky keep playing zone on defense?

One of Calipari’s continued coaching strengths is adaptation to talent. He has a philosophy but not a rigidly defined system or style of play. He’s proven that again this year.

As Calipari will tell you, he hates playing zone. He’s a man-to-man coach. This team’s length can’t be ignored, however. So Calipari has taken Barbee’s advice to use the zone. Without knowing the exact numbers, surely Kentucky has played more zone defense already this season than his previous eight years at Kentucky combined.

If the zone was not the difference in the 66-61 win over Georgia, it surely played a role. After front-court starters Nick Richards and PJ Washington picked up two early fouls — Richards ended up playing all of three minutes — the zone helped hold Georgia’s Yante Maten under control. The Bulldogs’ star finished with a reasonable (for him) 17 points and 12 rebounds when it could have been more. A lot more.

Kentucky will play on an opponent’s home floor for the first time this season when the Wildcats play at LSU on Wednesday.

5. Is there an X-factor on this team?

If so, it might be Wenyen Gabriel. The sophomore has quietly strung together some consistent efforts off the bench the last four games.

Gabriel made three of five shots and grabbed nine rebounds in the win over Virginia Tech on Dec. 16. He was possibly the lone bright light in the Dec. 23 loss to UCLA, nailing three three-pointers and scoring 16 points. Though he scored just three points against Louisville, he grabbed seven rebounds in 23 minutes.

Sunday, Gabriel produced a third double-digit rebounding game of the season with 10 boards. He also drilled a key three-pointer with 1:05 left that gave Kentucky a 63-57 lead.

Kentucky at LSU

When: Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.

TV: SEC Network with Tom Hart and Jon Sundvold

Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

UK Radio Network affiliates

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