Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s exhibition win over Kentucky State

Three takeaways from Kentucky men’s basketball’s 83-51 exhibition win over Kentucky State on Friday night at Rupp Arena:

1. EJ Montgomery is off to a very slow start

The sophomore managed just five points and five rebounds in 23 minutes during UK’s 80-53 win over Georgetown College in the Cats’ exhibition opener last Sunday. Friday night, Montgomery wasn’t much better with eight points and four boards in 25 minutes.

At halftime, Montgomery had no points and just one rebound in eight minutes against a Division II team that was playing with a definite height disadvantage against the host Cats. And yet Montgomery seemed to struggle with some of the problems that plagued his play a year ago. Lack of aggression. Lack of willingness to play through contact.

UK assistant coach Joel Justus, who subbed for an under-the-weather John Calipari in the postgame press conference, said he thinks Montgomery is still figuring things out.

“I think what Cal and our staff is trying to do is put him in positions to where he feels the most comfortable,” Justus said. “That’s a process. I think EJ is doing everything that he can in practice, on his own.”

Against a veteran, tough Michigan State team on Tuesday night, especially if Nick Richards is unable to play, Kentucky is going to need an effective EJ Montgomery.

2. Kentucky was a little more physical on Friday

At least the Cats didn’t get outrebounded, as they did against Georgetown. Caliapri’s club won the boards 43-33. UK had nine offensive rebounds, led by Keion Brooks with three. Brooks led the home team in rebounds with nine.

Nate Sestina nearly produced his second consecutive double-double. After scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the win over Georgetown, Sestina had 13 points and eight boards against the Thorobreds. He did so in a slightly different role than the first exhibition game, when Richards was on the floor at least through the first half before injuring his ankle early in the second half.

Richards was on the bench in a boot Saturday. He’s listed as day-to-day. So if he can’t go Tuesday, how will that change Sestina’s role?

“I think I’m just going to have to play a role as I did (tonight),” the grad transfer said afterward. “Have to be more aggressive, go after rebounds and be a better defender, help defender, team defender, stuff like that.”

3. It’s true, Michigan State is next on the schedule

That’s No. 1-ranked Michigan State, by the way. You know, head coach Tom Izzo. Probable Player of the Year favorite Cassius Winston. That’s right, No. 1 Sparty versus No. 2 Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

“Yeah. Why not?” said UK freshman Johnny Juzang when asked if he liked the idea of such a big game so early.

Of course, last year’s Kentucky team had its doors blown off in the early mega-matchup against Duke in the Champions Classic in Indiana. Not sure that these two exhibition games gave us much insight into whether Calipari’s team is more prepared this time around.

To a man, the players said they were looking forward to the challenge of Tuesday. And it stands to reason they will be a bit more hyped for the regular-season opener. That’s no offense to Georgetown or Kentucky State.

Can the Cats rise to the occasion? We shall see.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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