Photograph by Victoria Graff
BY Bill Crockett
(LEXINGTON, Ky.) — Coming on the heels of last week’s hiccup against Evansville, John Calipari’s short-handed Wildcats squandered a 16-point second-half lead but fended off pesky Utah Valley 82-74 in a squeaker at home. Slightly undermanned, No. 9 Kentucky (3-1) played not to lose for much of the contest and learned another valuable lesson versus a mid-major—opposing teams who visit Rupp Arena literally have nothing to lose.
“We knew coming in here that Kentucky was going to be amped up,” Coach Madsen said. “UK did a fantastic job of executing their game plan and really making big plays down the stretch.” With the win, UK avoided back-to-back home losses—something that has never happened during the Calipari era—and the indignation of potentially watching a goofy celebratory dance by Utah Valley coach Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen—cue his infamous 2002 Lakers’ celebration.
Coach Calipari’s concept of “position-less” basketball promises versatility and knockdown shooters, but in all actuality, the ‘Cats still have a lot to figure out. “You cannot be afraid to miss,” Calipari reasoned. “Even Nate was pulling back. You can’t play that way.” Kentucky’s depleted roster not only exposed potential weaknesses, but left little doubt that the ‘Cats face numerous issues on offense. A couple of younger players played for themselves and not the team.
Calipari told members of the media that he wants his team shooting around 20 three-pointers per game. That’s somewhat surprising considering the ‘Cats just shot an abysmal 1-of-12 from behind the three-point arc. Ashton Hagans missed his only two attempts from deep, but scored a career-high 26-points and led the Wildcats with 6 assists. One of the few bright spots, Hagans also shot a perfect 12-of-12 from the line—the most since Jodie Meeks went 14-of-14 in 2009.
Hagans, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, provided both poise and veteran leadership. Leading an understaffed squad, he clearly elevated his game and aggressively attacked the rim. During postgame interviews, I questioned Hagans about taking over the game down the stretch. “They just gave me the ball and I was trying to attack the basket,” Hagans answered. “If my teammates were open I would have given it to them, but I had layups and that’s what I took.”
Somewhat of an enigma recently, junior big man Nick Richards resurfaced and made his presence known on the offensive end of the floor. Richards recorded a double-double with 21-points and 10 boards. Although Richards dominated in the paint on offense, he voiced displeasure about his defensive performance. “I’d probably give myself a C,” Richards told me afterwards. “Because I didn’t get any blocks tonight and that’s something I’m really kind of mad about.”
If you make shots, basketball becomes easier on both ends of the floor.
Cal hinted at increased minutes for 6-foot-6 freshman Johnny Juzang. “Today, Johnny proved that he should play more,” Cal pointed out. “He’s spending the extra time and it paid off tonight.” Juzang grabbed a couple of key rebounds late and calmly sank four free-throws in the closing minutes of the game. Improving defensively, expect Juzang to play an integral role this season.
“You can’t skip steps guys, you can’t,” Calipari lectured during his opening statement. “We are who we are right now.” And right now, the ‘Cats simply aren’t a very good team. Regardless of injury, how many blue-blood programs sweated out consecutive home games versus mid-majors? With “Camp Cal” fast approaching, don’t expect any “tweaks” before the semester break. Here’s hoping the ‘Cats figure it out and start playing like they have nothing to lose.