John Clay

Thankfully for Kentucky basketball, there is plenty of time to improve

What did John Calipari think of UK’s defense against Winthrop?

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team's 87-74 win over Winthrop on Nov. 21, 2018, at Rupp Arena. Opponents have made 32 of 66 three-point shots in the last two games against the Cats.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team's 87-74 win over Winthrop on Nov. 21, 2018, at Rupp Arena. Opponents have made 32 of 66 three-point shots in the last two games against the Cats.

If you are a Kentucky basketball fan on this Thanksgiving, give thanks that it’s a long season.

The Cats need a lot of work.

Calm down. They should eventually get there. The talent’s there. The skill is there. The depth is there. The coaching is there. We’re not predicting this is a UK team that will lift the big trophy the first Monday in April. The pieces are there for it to be in the conversation, however. If they improve.

That was evident in UK’s 87-74 Wednesday matinee win over visiting Winthrop. PJ Washington scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Tyler Herro scored 15 points and dished seven of UK’s 20 assists on 31 made field goals. The Cats out-rebounded the shorter Eagles by 15. They led by as many as 26.

“Twenty-four minutes,” said John Calipari.

UK freshman Keldon Johnson talks about UK's defense — and lack of defense, at times — early in this season. The Cats gave up 13 three-pointers in a win over Winthrop on Wednesday.

The 24 being the number of minutes the UK coach said his team played like the way he wants them to play. By Cal’s calculations, the Cats played well the first 18 minutes of the 20-minute first half. They played well the first six minutes of the 20-minute second half.

“We played 18 good minutes the other night,” he said. “Now we’ve got to get it to 40.”

He added this, “This team isn’t disciplined enough yet to play a full 40 minutes.”

Defense is job one. Specifically, he’s talking three-point defense. His team is young. Its nine-man rotation features five freshmen. And it’s early. We’re not even to December yet. But we’ve seen nothing to this point to think this is a good perimeter defensive team.

Kentucky defeated Winthrop 87-74 during their game Wednesday at Rupp Arena.

Sunday night, VMI made a record 19 of 38 three-point attempts to put a scare into the Cats before losing by 10. Bubba Parham, a 5-foot-11 master of the moonball, made 10 of 16 three-pointers. One day, his grandchildren will hear the retelling. So you would have thought UK would make it a point to nail shut the holes in its three-point defense next time out of the gate.

You would have thought wrong. Winthrop made seven of 17 three-pointers the first half. It made six of 11 the second. Total: Winthrop was 13-of-28 from three. Total for two games: UK’s foes were 32-of-66 from three for 48.4 percent. On the season, opponents are making 44.1 percent of their three-point shots.

Cal identified other areas for continuing improvement. For example, Winthrop scored 27 points off 19 Kentucky turnovers. Too many turnovers by UK’s big men, said the coach. Reid Travis, sporting protective shades after being poked in the eye Sunday, turned it over four times. Washington committed three turnovers. Nick Richards turned it over twice in just 12 minutes.

Jackson Billings, 10, of Lexington geared up for the holiday by enjoying some Rupp Arena ice cream as Kentucky beat Winthrop on Wednesday afternoon. Alex Slitz

And while Washington produced a double-double, “I want more from PJ,” said Calipari, adding he expects high energy night after night from his sophomore forward. When Washington plays that way, “he’s as good as anybody in the country,” said the coach. When he doesn’t, “He’s just another player.”

Even the passing could be better, said the coach. Should be better. Twenty assists is a high number. But what about hockey assists? You know — the pass that sets up the pass that turns into a basket. Not enough Cats are passing the ball ahead. They want to be the one who makes the assist, not the one who makes the pass that leads to an assist. There’s not a column in the box score for that.

Hold on. Did UK not win Wednesday? Is this really the tone we want to strike on Thanksgiving?

“We got better,” Calipari said.

UK sophomore PJ Washington talks about Tyler Herro's passing ability after the freshman guard's seven assists in the Wildcats' victory over Winthrop on Wednesday afternoon.

UK has won four straight since the 34-point loss to Duke opening night. Perhaps the shock of that surreal evening in Indy still hangs over this young team. Gutted confidence needed a rebuild, after all. And progress comes not in giant leaps, but small steps for a team that most agree just needs time.

If you’re a Kentucky basketball fan, give thanks it’s early. There’s still more than enough time.

UK Coach John Calipari joked that freshman Tyler Herro is "the worst passer I've ever coached" after Herro had seven assists in the Wildcats' win over Winthrop on Wednesday.

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