John Clay

John Clay: Kentucky has a high ceiling, but a long way to go reach it

Once it gets everything figured out, this Kentucky basketball team has a chance to be a pretty good basketball team. Right now, however, two weeks before Christmas, this team is a long way from figuring it out.

“We’re still a ways away folks,” John Calipari said Wednesday night.

His team had just handled neighbor Eastern Kentucky 88-67 in Rupp Arena. His senior forward Alex Poythress scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. As a team, the Cats scored 58 points in the paint. They doubled up the smaller Colonels on the boards 50-25. They shot an impressive 54.7 percent from the floor, including 68.9 percent (31-of-45) from two-point range.

They also committed 17 turnovers, however, and missed 15 of their 19 three-point attempts. In fact, not until the game’s final 5:42, when Kentucky went on a 15-2 run to close out the game, did the nation’s No. 5 team, a 24-point favorite, come close to putting the scrappy, hustling Colonels away for good.

Taken as a whole, it was a decent response to last week’s punch to the gut that was the surprise loss at UCLA. It was not, however, the type of performance that Kentucky will need Saturday against Coach Bobby Hurley and Arizona State, a team that has won six of its last seven games, including a 13-point win over then-No. 18 Texas A&M last time out.

“Beat Texas A&M going away,” Calipari pointed out.

The final score may have suggested Kentucky won its game going away Wednesday, but sometimes the final numbers can deceive. Coming in, under first-year coach Dan McHale, the former UK basketball manager, the Colonels were not just a three-point shooting team, but a good three-point shooting team, hitting 44 percent from behind the arc. Against the Cats, EKU made just five of 18 from three-point range.

“A lot of that had to do with their length,” said McHale.

And yet, Eastern kept playing and fighting and Kentucky couldn’t get the consecutive stops it needed to pull away. Not until the end, anyway. Javontae Hawkins scored 19 points. Jarelle Reischel added 12.

Eastern didn’t appear intimidated, not even before 22,544 on UK’s home floor. And considering that the Cats have yet to develop a physical presence, something Calipari has been harping on, determined opponents probably are not going to be discouraged.

“I thought Skal made strides,” Calipari said of his freshman center Skal Labissiere, whose focus has been on playing more physical. “He dove on the floor. Now he said he hurt his elbow, but he did dive on the floor.”

Playing against a much smaller opponent, Labissiere managed all of four rebounds in 25 minutes. He claimed two of UK’s 18 offensive boards. He did block three shots, but he also turned the ball over three times. He’s learning – “You’re all seeing he’s pretty good offensively,” Cal said – but he’s not going to reach his overall potential overnight.

Perimeter shooting remains a concern. On the year, the Cats have made just 39 of 142 three-point attempts for 27 percent. Jamal Murray went 2-for-9 from three on Wednesday. (“Missed a lot of open shots,” Calpari said.) Tyler Ulis was 2-for-6 from three and is 9-for-32 on the year. Derek Willis missed his only two three-point attempts. Same for Poythress.

“I’m probably expecting way too much from these guys,” Calipari said. “Probably because we’ve all been spoiled because when we step on the court everybody thinks we’re just supposed to win. The UCLA game kind of got everybody in check. It was ‘Oh my God, are we that team? Or are we that other team?’”

“They haven’t even reached their ceiling yet,” McHale said. “Not even close.”

Meanwhile, as Calipari said Wednesday night, “This stuff is on now. It’s on.”

The schedule brings Arizona State followed by Ohio State in Brooklyn followed by a Rupp date with Louisville, “who is playing really well right now,” Calipari said.

The sooner his young team figures it out, the better.

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