Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 56-47 win over Vanderbilt:
1. Slow starts fast becoming a problem.
Alexa, please leave the Kentucky basketball team an alarm so it won’t keep missing the start of the game.
Conference opener at Alabama. First four minutes. Kentucky trailed 11-6. Conference home opener against Texas A&M. The visiting Aggies scored the game’s first 10 points. Saturday against Vanderbilt. The Commodores drained three-pointers on their first three possessions. With 15:09 left in first half, Vandy led 16-4.
“Ridiculous,” said UK Coach John Calipari.
Oh, the Cats rallied to tie the game at 28. Down 30-28 at halftime, the home team opened the second half on a 7-0 run and never lost control after that. One major reason: After shooting 50 percent the first half, Bryce Drew’s team shot just 24 percent the second half. The ‘Dores took 24 shots over the final 20 minutes. They made six.
So far, UK has managed to overcome its failures to launch. The loss at Alabama had more to do with a rough second half patch than the game’s opening segment. The Cats wound up leading A&M by 12 points at the half. And without star freshman Darius Garland, lost for the season to an MCL tear, Vanderbilt was not a match for Cal’s Cats.
Kentucky can’t keep this up, however. Tougher teams await. Teams that won’t give up the early gains taken through UK’s sleepy starts. “We’ve got to focus,” said freshman Keldon Johnson.
2. Vanderbilt’s zone defense was a good test.
For the most part new to the college game, the Cats had faced brief periods where opponents had played a zone defense. Vanderbilt played it from start to finish, Drew electing to defend with a 2-3 zone the entire 40 minutes.
“It’s really difficult, folks, when you have young guys that are still learning the feel, when to look to the post,” Calipari said afterward of UK’s approach to attacking the Vandy zone. “I was trying everything just to get something to work.”
UK ended up shooting 50 percent for the game, making 22 of 44 shots. That overall mark came despite missing 12 of 16 three-point shots. Three of those made threes belonged to Immanuel Quickley, who was three of seven from downtown. Overall, the Cats averaged 1.044 points per possession, compared to 0.815 for the Commodores.
Keldon Johnson and Ashton Hagans each ended up with 15 points. Hagans was seven of nine from the floor, but most of those were off steal-and-scores. He was credited with three steals. And while Hagans has struggled from three-point range, those fast-break layups do count.
“I’m telling him to shoot,” Calipari said. “He’s a better shooter than people think.”
3. It’s important to hold serve at home.
As Calipari pointed out afterward, SEC home teams took their lumps Saturday. No. 3 ranked Tennessee beat Florida 78-67 in Gainesville. Surprising Ole Miss beat No. 14 Mississippi State 81-77 in Starkville. Texas A&M beat Alabama 81-80 in Tuscaloosa. LSU beat Arkansas 94-88 in overtime in Fayetteville.
“We didn’t lose at home,” Calipari confirmed.
UK and Auburn were the two league teams that came through at home. Auburn beat visiting Georgia 93-78. That’s the same Georgia that beat Vanderbilt in Athens this past week. And the Cats visit the Bulldogs on Tuesday.
It’s an interesting early league race. Tennessee is 3-0. No surprise. Ole Miss is 3-0. Big surprise. First-year coach Kermit Davis Jr., who arrived in Oxford after a successful stint at Middle Tennessee, has the Rebels rocking. Ole Miss is now 13-2 on the season.
After going 5-7 against its non-conference schedule, South Carolina is 2-0 in league play. The Gamecocks game against Missouri on Saturday was postponed when Mizzou’s flight out of Columbia was canceled. The two teams will try again Sunday at 1 p.m. And LSU is off to a 2-0 start after the win over the Razorbacks.
Then comes Kentucky at 2-1. The Cats aren’t going to scare anyone right now, but their lone league loss came on the road by two points. And they are 2-0 at home. Still a long way to go.