Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s frustrating win over Tennessee State

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 77-62 win over Tennessee State on Friday:

1. What happened to that team that blew through the Bahamas?

When he settled into his seat at the podium for his postgame press conference, the UK coach let out an audible sigh. No one could blame him.

Yes, his Cats are 5-1. Yes, they have followed the Duke fiasco with five straight victories. Yes, we are not even to December. Yet the coach is obviously frustrated with UK’s lack of early-season progress.

“Look guys, we’re a ways away,” Calipari said. “We’re not a very good team right now.”

They certainly do not look like the same team that won four straight exhibition games in the Bahamas. Not just won four straight, but looked great in four straight. The ball moved. Shots fell. Boards were dominated. Defense was played. The Cats came out of the Islands looking like a legitimate national title contender.

The look of that team has yet to make it back to the states. We’re not just talking about the disaster that was the blowout loss to Duke in the Champions Classic. Since then, Kentucky has played four teams it should have dominated, and not dominated one.

“We’re up 20 and it should go to 40 and all of a sudden it’s 12,” Calipari said Friday. “It’s like, ‘What happened?’”

Four years ago UK exited a Bahamas exhibition trip and won its first five regular season games by an average of 34.6 points. One of the first five opponents was Kansas. Kentucky beat the Jayhawks by 32.

“So what’s the difference between then and now?” Calipari was asked.

“When we had the No. 1 pick in the draft and we had four lottery picks and we had pretty good players and six guys got drafted from that team?” said the coach. “It was a pretty good team.”

You don’t have those types of players now?

“I don’t think so at this point.”

2. Defensive improvement remains first priority.

Calipari’s biggest complaint Friday involved his defense. The previous two games, the Cats failed to guard the three-point shot. VMI made a ridiculous 19 of 38 three-point tries. Winthrop was nearly as good, hitting 13 of 28. So Kentucky concentrated on three-point defense.

“We fixed a certain part of that,” said forward Reid Travis on Friday. “But we can’t take steps back in other parts of our defense.”

Tennessee State entered the game averaging 32.4 three-point attempts per game. Friday, the Tigers took 16, making six. Why? They didn’t have to settle for threes, said Calipari. The visitors knew they could drive the ball to the rim.

And they did. UK ended up winning by 15, but the points in the paint ended up even. Tennessee State scored 32. Kentucky scored 32. And the Cats boasted the bigger, more athletic roster.

Defense is Calipari’s thing. Said it before and will say it again: He’s underrated as a defensive coach. Forget about the offense, he said Friday. Never mind that UK shot 33.3 percent the first half and made just one of 10 threes. The offense will be fine. It’s the defense that needs fixing.

“We have no confidence defensively,” Calipari said, “which bleeds into our offense.”

3. The frustration isn’t limited to defense.

Surely Calipari is frustrated by inconsistent individual offensive play, as well.

PJ Washington is example one. The sophomore forward was averaging 21 points and 12 rebounds over his last three games. He was coming off back-to-back double-doubles against VMI and Winthrop. Against Tennessee State, Washington managed just six points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes.

Sophomore center Nick Richards grabbed 19 rebounds against Southern Illinois. He’s managed just six rebounds in the four games since. Friday, he finished with two points and one rebound in just 10 minutes on the floor. He also picked up a technical foul with 2:02 left.

Freshman Tyler Herro appeared to have shot fixed when he went seven of 12 from the floor and one-for-two from three against North Dakota on Nov. 14. Since then, Herro is 11-for-27 from the floor and six of 17 from three-point land.

Keldon Johnson scored a career-high 27 points on Friday, topping the 23 he scored against Duke. In the four games between those two, however, Johnson averaged 12.3 points per game.

Kentucky basketball 2018-19

DateOpponentScoreDec
11/2/18vsDuke84-118L
11/9/18So Illinois71-59W
11/14/18North Dakota96-58W
11/18/18VMI92-82W
11/21/18Winthrop87-74W
11/23/18Tennessee St77-62W
11/28/18Monmouth



12/1/18UNC-Greensb



12/8/18vsSeton Hall



12/15/18Utah



12/22/18vsN Carolina

12/29/18@Louisville



1/5/19@Alabama



1/8/19Texas A&M



1/12/19Vanderbilt



1/15/19@Georgia



1/19/19@Auburn



1/22/19Miss State



1/26/19Kansas



1/29/19@Vanderbilt



2/2/19@Florida



2/5/19S Carolina



2/9/19@Miss State



2/12/19LSU



2/16/19Tennessee



2/19/19@Missouri



2/23/19Auburn



2/26/19Arkansas



3/2/19@Tennessee



3/5/19@Ole Miss



3/9/19Florida



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