Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways as Kentucky basketball closes out the exhibition season

A young fan cheers for both teams during an exhibition game between Kentucky and Centre College at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. Kentucky beat Centre College 106-63. The Cats open the regular season on Friday, Nov. 10 against Utah Valley.
A young fan cheers for both teams during an exhibition game between Kentucky and Centre College at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. Kentucky beat Centre College 106-63. The Cats open the regular season on Friday, Nov. 10 against Utah Valley. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 106-63 exhibition win over Centre College on Friday night:

1. The squeaky wheel gets the grease

In Monday night’s 92-67 win over Morehead State, UK was outrebounded 30-25 by the smaller Eagles. So John Calipari ran rebounding drills in practice, blocking off the rim so players could not make shots and everyone had to rebound. The result: Kentucky destroyed smaller Centre 52-17 on the boards on Friday.

Monday night, freshman center Nick Richards did not score or get a rebound in 12 minutes against Morehead. Friday night, Richards went a perfect six-for-six from the floor and had 17 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Monday night, freshman forward PJ Washington produced eight points and four rebounds in 27 minutes. Friday, Washington scored 10 points in the first half.

Monday night, sophomore Wenyen Gabriel scored just five points in 28 minutes. Friday, Gabriel led Kentucky with 20 points, making eight of 11 shots. He also grabbed nine rebounds.

Monday night, UK was six-of-16 from three-point range for 37.5 percent, but that shot up to 57.1 percent after the Cats went eight-of-14 against Centre.

“I think we’d all agree they’re better than they were a week ago,” said Centre coach Greg Mason.

“We’re making improvement,” said Richards, “but we’re not where we want to be yet.”

2. Yes, that was a Calipari team in a zone defense

Early in practice drills, Calipari said he was tempted to have this team play a zone defense considering its length and wingspan, which could be particularly effective when spread out over the floor.

Remember, Calipari doesn’t like to play zone. He’s a man-to-man coach. When his teams have tried zone in the past at Kentucky, it took only one or two made field goals for Calipari to yank the strategy and return to the man-to-man he trusts and loves.

Still, every team is different so Friday night the Cats spent a good part of the second half playing zone.

How did it look?

“The one that disappointed me is the skip over the top and Wenyen (is) 6-9 and that kid’s 6-3 – and if he drove it, we’re in a zone, we got a guy on the elbow and we got a guy on the block, the only thing that can hurt us is shoot the three.”

And that’s what happened as Centre’s Art Walker made a three-pointer out of the corner.

“But we haven’t played much zone, (so) how could I get that upset?” Calipari said, who did add. “I tell you, we got our hands on a lot of balls. You’re really that long, it’s pretty good stuff.”

3. Next time, it’s for real

That’s it for the pre-season, which started with a 103-61 win over Thomas More on Friday night, continued on to the 25-point victory over Morehead in the Kentucky Cares Classic on Monday, then concluded with the 43-point romp over the Colonels on Friday.

Calipari has a week to get his team ready for next Friday’s season opener against Utah Valley, which is a 7 p.m. start at Rupp Arena on the SEC Network. That’s the start of three games in five days when UK will also face Vermont on Sunday the 12th, then Kansas in the Champions Classic in Chicago on Nov. 14.

It’s obvious the head coach is still playing with lineups. He started Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander together in the backcourt on Friday after the two have been knocking heads in competition for the starting point guard spot in practice. Green finished with 18 points and five assists. He didn’t commit a turnover in 25 minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander scored eight points with two assists and two turnovers.

After not starting the first game, Gabriel has started the last two and had his best game on Friday night. The sophomore does appear improve over a year ago. So does Sacha Killeya-Jones, who came off the bench to grab nine rebounds against Centre.

The Division I opponents in the real games will be a tougher challenge, of course. Mark Pope, the former Cat who is now the head coach at Utah Valley, has several key players back from a team that won 17 games last year. Vermont is expected to be the best team in the America East Conference.

Meanwhile, Kansas is ranked No. 4 in the AP pre-season poll, one spot in front of Kentucky.

“We’ve just got a lot of work to do to be able to feel a comfort level on the court,” said Calipari.

Kentucky basketball’s first five games

Nov. 10 Utah Valley, 7 p.m. (SEC)

Nov. 12 Vermont, 3:30 (ESPN)

Nov. 14 Kansas in Chicago, 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Nov. 17 East Tennessee State, 7 p.m. (SEC)

Nov. 20 Troy, 8 p.m. (SEC)

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