Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 85-61 win over the Bahamas Select team in the first of a four-exhibition series in the islands:
1. Nick Richards looked like a different player
No big secret that as a freshman the 6-foot-11 center struggled last year. He often looked lost and unsure of himself. He remained a starter for John Calipari, but by the end of the year Richards was logging 8-to-10 minutes a game while Cal relied on reinforcements.
Wednesday night, Richards looked ready to make a sophomore surge. He scored 12 early points on the way to a game-high 19 points. He looked much more comfortable around the rim offensively and used his length to his advantage on defense, which Kentucky played much better as a team in the second half.
If Richards can continue to show that kind of improvement once the 2018-19 season rolls around, that would be a tremendous boost to the entire squad. Some thought that perhaps freshman E.J. Montgomery might unseat Richards for the center spot, and the talented Montgomery may very well do that. Richards, however, isn’t going to give it up without a fight.
2. Not a good start for the shots behind the arc
As was pointed out in the SEC Network broadcast by analysts Dan Dakich and Seth Greenberg, that was the weakness of last year’s team. The Cats were 344th in the nation in three-point percentage and shot the three-ball poorly during the NCAA Tournament. It was at least one reason Kentucky was bounced in the Sweet 16.
This year is supposed to be different. Freshman Tyler Herro was lauded as a terrific perimeter shooter. Jemarl Baker, who sat out last year after a pair of knee surgeries, was supposed to finally show why he earned the reputation of being a knock-down shooter. Holdover Quade Green has shown he can sink a three-pointer. Others on this team were supposed to be able to stretch the defense, as well.
That didn’t happen Wednesday night. The Cats ended up two-of-20 from behind the line. Immanuel Quickley was one-of-three from three. Brad Calipari bounced in a three-pointer from the left corner on his only attempt. Those were the only players who saw the ball go through the net on a three-point attempt.
Green missed all six of his three-point attempts. Herro was 0 for three. Keldon Johnson missed his two three-point attempts. Same for PJ Washington.
To be fair, Jemarl Baker did not play. The broadcasters indicated his knee is apparently not quite ready. And this was the first game. As Greenberg continually noted, the players -- so many of them so young -- are not comfortable with the sets of the offense yet. That will come. And this Bahamas trip will help that come much more quickly.
3. Reid Travis looked uncomfortable in his blue debut
The graduate transfer from Stanford is the reason plenty of knowledgeable people are picking Kentucky to be preseason No. 1 in the polls and be the one cutting down the nets at the end of the season. Adding Travis to an already talented team seemed just what Calipari’s roster needed.
But the Minneapolis native’s first (exhibition) game in a blue, er, black uniform, was shaky, at best. Travis did have 14 rebounds, but he scored just four points and was just two-for-nine from the floor. He did not take the ball up strong to the rim. He often hesitated, allowing the defense to collapse.
All that should change in time. He’s new. The system is new. The coaching staff is new. His teammates are new. Travis is a banger who figures to get plenty of put-back points, garbage points and opportunities from his muscle and scrap. For that to happen, he needs to be in the right position at the right time. Part of that is a feel for the offense and what his teammates are doing. He has the body and he’s proven he has the tools. As with the entire team, this Bahamas trip is a godsend for Travis. And not just because of the beach and the weather.