Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over Eastern Kentucky

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 91-49 win over Eastern Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Friday night:

1. There was no evidence of Big Blue getting the big head

After Kentucky’s big 69-62 win in the Big Apple over No. 1-ranked Michigan State in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden, John Calipari’s club could have been excused had it failed to be completely locked in for the home opener against the visitors up the road.

No such luck for A.W. Hamilton’s Colonels. The Cats forced EKU into five turnovers in the first six possessions and ripped off a 14-0 lead before Eastern finally scored with 12:57 left in the first half. “We started the game in shock,” said Hamilton, whose team had opened the year with a win over Chattanooga. “We had a shocked look on our face.”

By halftime, Kentucky’s lead was 46-25. Eastern shot 27.3% the first half, compared to 51.6 for UK. By game’s end, the Cats had shot 54.8% from the floor, compared to 25% for EKU. Two Cats had produced double-doubles. Nick Richards scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. (More on him later.) Nate Sestina added 12 points and 11 boards. And Eastern had turned the ball over 21 times.

“They have some really athletic bigs and scoring guards,” EKU’s Ty Taylor said. “They’re one of the better teams here in the last couple of years.”

2. Is this really, finally, seriously, a different Nick Richards?

We said that last year when the then sophomore center played so well in those Bahamas exhibition games. Then the season started, and Richards was up-and-down again, more down than up by year’s end. When time came for players to put their names into NBA Draft consideration, Richards walked into Calipari’s office and said, “I’m not ready.”

Now? Well, so far, so good. After missing the second exhibition game because of a sprained ankle, Richards played 25 effective minutes in the Cats’ win over the Spartans. Then Friday, he posted the aforementioned double-double, along with four blocked shots.

“Nick Richards was a superstar tonight,” Hamilton said. “If he plays like that, Kentucky is probably going to win the national championship, that’s what I think.”

It’s too early to project a player’s performance for the entire season, but Richards does appear more comfortable. He was 10 of 11 from the floor and committed just a couple of turnovers in 32 minutes.

And maybe the best part of the night came when Richards appeared on the video board in a pre-taped segment asking fans to vote for his girlfriend, volleyball star Leah Edmond, for the 2019 Senior Class Award.

3. Tyrese Maxey was less than marvelous, and that’s OK

After his breakout 26-point performance at MSG on Tuesday, Maxey returned to planet Earth in the home opener. He scored just nine points in 26 minutes, going 2-of-6 from the floor. And after hitting clutch threes from all over the floor against the Spartans, Maxey was 0-for-2 from beyond the extended stripe against the Colonels.

So what.

The Cats didn’t need Maxey to be all that marvelous against EKU. Instead, Calipari praised a balanced attack that saw Immanuel Quickley (16 points), Kahlil Whitney (11), Keion Brooks (11) and Ashton Hagans (11) join Richards and Sestina in double figures.

In fact, Maxey’s all-world performance on the New York stage didn’t even get him a starting nod Friday night. Again, Calipari brought the Texan off the bench. And that was all right with Maxey who told his coach, “I trust you.”

“Even with Tyrese not having a big game, do you think anybody’s opinion has changed?” Calipari said afterward.

Uh, no.

“Believe me,” said Cal, “by the end of the year what you saw in New York will be even another level.”

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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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