Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 93-76 win over Monmouth at Madison Square Garden.
1. Kentucky winning with a sub-par Kevin Knox is good for the soul
That’s because Knox didn’t have a big game in the Big Apple. In fact, you could say the 6-foot-9 freshman from Tampa was awful, hitting just one of his nine shots, including just one of his five three-point attempts.
His first and only field goal, a three-pointer from the right wing, came with 6:01 remaining in the game and his Cats comfortably out in front of the Hawks 81-57.
One of the nation’s more heralded freshmen, Knox came to New York in the midst of a solid start, averaging 16.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. He was shooting 48.5 percent from the floor and 34.2 percent from three-point land, hitting 13 of 38 triples.
He left with four points and five rebounds. He did dish four assists, but he committed seven, count ‘em, seven turnovers.
“It wasn’t one of his better games, but that’s fine,” said UK coach John Calipari afterward. “It’s good for the soul to go 1-for-9. Now what you learn is if you went 1-for-5; would you shoot jumpers or just keep going to the basket until they foul you and get baskets, or you end up going for 1-for-0, which is what he did. It’s a great lesson for him.”
2. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander earned an admirer
Monmouth coach King Rice and Calipari are friends. As an assistant at Pittsburgh, Calipari recruited Rice, who ended up at North Carolina. Calipari sent Rice about 8,000 recruiting letters, according to Rice’s estimate. The Monmouth coach also said this, “He was good at it.”
The two became and remained friends. When Calipari coached the USA U19 team last summer, which won a bronze medal, he had Rice come and be one of his “court coaches” during the team’s selection process and training camp in Colorado.
Rice said he knew UK freshman Damidou Diallo before going. He coached PJ Washington while there, plus Washington played with Monmouth’s current top scorer, Micah Seaborn (18 points on Saturday) back in Texas.
Rice didn’t know UK freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander until Saturday. “I was impressed,” said the coach. “He’s a good player.”
And why not? Playing 32 minutes off the bench, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 15 points and contributed a career-high nine assists. He made four of his eight shots, two of his four three-pointers and five of his six free throws. He also grabbed six rebounds in a good all-around game.
The Canadian has now scored in double figures each of this last four games. He still turns the ball over too much, with three on Saturday. But three games this season he has had six-or-more assists.
When Qaude Green left the game after being poked in the eye, Gilgeous-Alexander took over the point and the Cats didn’t skip a beat.
3. Now it’s on to the harder stuff
Saturday’s 17-point win improved the Cats to 8-1 on the season. With the exception of the 65-61 loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic, UK’s early schedule has been filled with mid-majors in an effort to give his young team some seasoning before the opposition gets tougher.
The harder stuff starts next Saturday when Virginia Tech comes to town. Out of the ACC, the Hokies are 8-1 heading into Sunday’s game against Maryland-Eastern Shore. They lead the nation in both scoring offense at 96.6 points per game and field goal percentage at 55.3 percent. Yikes.
Then comes a trip to the Big Easy for a game that won’t be easy. The Cats play UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic New Orleans. The Bruins took Michigan to overtime before losing 78-69 in Ann Arbor on Saturday. They are now 7-2 on the season and probably secretly thrilled to be rid of LaVar Ball.
Then comes, yes, Louisville -- or “Lewis-ville” as Calipari called it here Saturday -- for a Dec. 29 game at Rupp Arena. After close losses at Purdue and at home to Seton Hall, the Cards have won two straight, including a 71-62 victory over Indiana at the KFC Yum Center. For all of the program’s mess, Louisville still has plenty of talent.
Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Georgia comes to Rupp Arena for the SEC opener. The Bulldogs are 7-1 with one of the best and most underrated frontcourt players in all of college basketball in Yante Maten.
There’s no doubt that Kentucky has improved -- “We’re just getting started,” Calipari said Saturday -- but how much the Cats have improved, we are about to find out.
Kentucky basketball 2017-18
vsMonmouth (New York)
vsUCLA (New Orleans)