Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s close shave with Vermont

Kentucky forward PJ Washington (25) celebrated a basket during the Wildcats’ 73-69 win over Vermont 73-69 at Rupp Arena on Sunday Nov. 12, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Washington scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Kentucky forward PJ Washington (25) celebrated a basket during the Wildcats’ 73-69 win over Vermont 73-69 at Rupp Arena on Sunday Nov. 12, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Washington scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Lexington Herald-Leader

Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 73-69 win over Vermont on Sunday:

1. This close game should do these young Cats some good

Close games are fun, right?

“Close games are never fun,” said UK freshman guard Quade Green with a shake of his head. “Never.”

But sometimes they are necessary and for John Calipari’s ultra-green team, the fact that the Vermont Catamounts rallied to take the host Wildcats right down to the wire was surely a good thing for the Cats.

When Vermont cut the lead to 69-66 with 3:29 left, Kentucky had to execute. Kentucky had to get stops. Kentucky had to claim rebounds -- with two hands. Kentucky had to do the little things college basketball teams have to do at the end of games to actually win the game.

“I think it will help us,” said freshman forward PJ Washington, who recorded his first collegiate double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

When the visitors from the America East Conference, who went 16-0 in that league last year and won 29 games overall, really put a scare into the home team, Kevin Knox awoke from what had been a Sunday afternoon slumber to rise up and dill a three-pointer out of the left corner for a 72-66 lead.

“That was big,” said Calipari. “I need to know late in the game he can make that shot.”

And, as the coach also said, you don’t learn those types of things playing “Popcorn State,” a team not on the Kentucky schedule this season. Vermont was experienced enough not to panic when it fell behind, not even in Rupp, and inched its way back into the game. Despite its youth, Kentucky didn’t panic and pulled out the win.

What was it Calipari said Friday after the 10-point win over Utah Valley? Oh yeah, the coach said that early on it’s going to be a matter of survival with this team. At 2-0, so far, UK has learned how to survive.

2. So far, anyway, UK’s students just aren’t showing up

Used to be, the E-Rupption Zone at UK was a mosh pit of student bodies who had to make the trek down to Rupp Arena hours before the doors opened to make sure they got a good baseline spot to root on their favorite team.

Now, apparently it’s too much of a bother. There were vast holes in the Zone during the three exhibition games, but those were exhibition games. In the two “real” games thus far -- the 10-point win over Utah Valley on Friday night and Sunday’s squeaker with Vermont -- the student turnout has been anemic, both down near the floor and in the rafters of the upper deck student section.

It’s early, and the first two opponents have not been marquee names, but you wonder what kind of effect the price increase from $5 to $10 for student tickets has had on the student population. UK said it’s thinking was that at $5, students could buy the ticket, skip the game and not feel the financial effect. By charging more, the tickets would become more valuable and the students would actually show up.

That hasn’t been the case. Not yet. This will be an interesting trend to follow this season. If the low turnout continues, what will UK do?

By the way, Sunday’s attendance was 20,174. The smallest crowd for a non-conference game home game last season was 21,327 for UK-Duquense.

3. On to the “City of Big Shoulders” for a big matchup with a Big Team

PJ Washington said he was excited. Quade Green said he was excited. Even sophomore graybeard Sacha Killeya-Jones said he was excited about Tuesday’s Champions Classic matchup with Kansas at the United Center in Chicago.

Calipari may not be all that excited. He knows what his younger than young team is up against the big, bad Jayhawks.

“At least we have a lot of time to prepare,” he deadpanned on Sunday.

“They will play more mush mouth,” the UK coach added later. “They will play fast, bang bang, shoot threes and their guard play is unbelievable. (Bill Self) has a really good team. He’s got veterans on that team that have been there and done that.”

The best of which is senior guard Devonte Graham, who will be a handful for whichever Cat gets the assignment of guarding him. Remember, these are UK guys who were guarding AAU players not that long ago. Tuesday night, before a large collection of NBA scouts and a national television audience, not to mention Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas, they will be guarding maybe the best experienced guard in the country.

Is Kentucky ready for real college basketball?

Kentucky vs. Kansas

When: Tuesday, Nov. 14

Tipoff: Approximately 9:30 p.m. after Duke-Michigan State

Where: United Center in Chicago

TV: ESPN

Radio: UK Network

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