Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 85-74 win over Texas A&M:
1. Getting outworked just won’t work.
To be honest, this was a less-than-impressive victory. Texas A&M arrived in Rupp Arena just 6-6 on the season and 0-1 in the SEC after a 73-71 home loss to Arkansas on Saturday. The Aggies lost by 23 at Gonzaga, and by 15 at home to Texas Southern 10 days ago. And less than four minutes into Tuesday night in Rupp, Billy Kennedy’s team had a 10-0 lead.
UK rallied to lead by a dozen, 46-34, at halftime. But the visitors staged a second-half comeback, pulling to within just two points, 66-64, with 7:55 remaining. The Cats steadied themselves at that point and pulled away from the win, but it was much harder than it needed to be.
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“We have some guys that are getting outworked,” said UK coach John Calipari afterward, and that’s always a troubling thing to hear. So was the Cal add-on that some of those players seem to think it’s OK to get outworked at times. Not good.
The Cats played with a sense of urgency in that impressive 80-72 victory over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic on Nov. 22. A week later, they were locked-in during a 71-58 victory at arch-rival Louisville. With something to prove and the stakes high, Calipari’s young team was able to rise to the moment.
That hasn’t been the case in SEC play. There was that 77-75 loss at Alabama on Saturday. Not a bad loss. On the road. Conference opener. But still a loss. Then Tuesday, against lesser competition, UK watched Texas A&M shoot 48.2 percent and win the boards, 29-28.
2. The bench brigade did make a difference.
After falling behind 10-0, the Cats did get a lift from its bench. Nick Richards provided a spark before picking up his second foul. His replacement, EJ Montgomery, scored two quick baskets. And guard Immanuel Quickley came on to get a pair of steals and fast break buckets.
Not part of that first wave off the bench, Jemarl Baker still made a solid contribution with three assists in 13 minutes. Baker also buried a three-pointer from the right corner while being fouled. He made the free throw for a four-point play.
The bench brigade helped mitigate subpar efforts from Reid Travis and PJ Washington. Travis managed just six points and four rebounds in 30 minutes. As Caliapri commented after the Alabama game, Travis has regressed to be not being as quick and decisive around the rim. And Washington did not score until there was 13:59 left in the game. The sophomore finished with nine points and five rebounds
Quickley ended up with 10 points and three steals. He was a perfect four of four from the field, including two of two from three-point land in his 13 minutes.
Kentucky’s bench ended up outscoring Texas A&M 23-9.
3. Where did the rebounding go?
Before SEC play began, Kentucky was one of the nation’s best rebounding teams, especially at the offensive end. That hasn’t continued through the first two SEC games.
Non-conference: Kentucky outrebounded Southern Illinois by 29; North Dakota by 30; VMI by 21; Winthrop by 15; Monmouth by 15; UNC Greensboro by 16; North Carolina by 11. Only Duke and Utah beat the Cats on the boards.
Then Alabama outrebounded the Cats 40-32 on Saturday. The Cats were held to just six offensive rebounds and finished with an offensive rebound percentage of a season-low 15.4. (Previous low was 25.9 percent against VMI.) That continued Tuesday as A&M edged UK on the glass 29-28. UK’s offensive rebound percentage was better (25.0) but still not great.
Isn’t rebounding about effort? That goes back to what Calipari said about his players getting outworked. Travis finished with just four rebounds in 30 minutes on the floor. Washington managed just one offensive rebound in his 28 minutes. Keldon Johnson ended up being the rebound leader with six.
If the Cats are going make a splash in the SEC and be the team Calipari “thinks we can be” they need to return to the glass-eaters they were before conference play began.