The Old Dominion Monarchs took on the Kentucky Wildcats in the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic today at noon. Due to an early-morning flight, I managed to oversleep and miss the first half of the game. That's weird enough, but it would get weirder when I began watching the second half of this one.
First of all, we have to congratulate Old Dominion on a fine basketball game, by far the toughest challenge Kentucky has received. They were physical and disciplined, and the physicality really made it tough on Kentucky's freshmen, who are still soft as butter compared to the hardened ODU inside warriors. ODU may not be as talented, but they were a lot tougher inside than UK, and they really took it to us. Nice, quality effort by the Monarchs.
With all that said, Kentucky played a very poor game offensively, but some of that was due to the fact that UK has not seen a 3-2 zone like ODU employs all year, and it really took the Wildcats out of their rhythm on offense. Kentucky also shot the ball poorly from the perimeter when they did get good looks, and showed a lack of discipline and self-control when the game got chippy in a flurry of technical fouls.
But then, Darius Miller asserted himself, calmly taking over the offensive initiation from Marquis Teague, who played much of the game out of control and confused by the toughness of ODU. Miller began dropping dimes and making clutch shots, and as he took the pressure off of Teague when the game got close, Teague began to recover and play better, scoring a number of clutch baskets late in the second half that were badly needed.
Anthony Davis, who had frustrated ODU's efforts to score inside, got into foul trouble and fouled out with 4:03 left in the game. Kyle Wiltjer was unable to guard the post against the stronger and more physical Monarchs, and the game got to within one point at 50-49. That's when Miller began to assert himself as a 6'7" point guard, and Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist began to wipe the defensive glass and toughen up on ODU's inside play. Combined with Teague's penetration in transition, it was too much for the Monarchs to overcome.
Superlatives (Disclaimer -- I didn't see the first half, so my comments will be purely based on what I did see):
- Darius Miller struggled scoring yesterday, but today he defended, rebounded, and scored as well as dropping five sweet dimes, all of which were critical to Kentucky's success. In short, Miller played like a senior and played like a leader. Game ball.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had another good game, and deserves an honorable mention. 13 points and 9 rebounds is all you can ask of a player like him, and he gave great defensive effort as well. Turnovers were a problem for him today.
- Anthony Davis had a pretty good game despite fouling out. Nine big rebounds to go along with 11 points and three blocks.
- Terrence Jones played badly on offense, but that didn't stop him from having a major impact on the game. He blocked five shots and had eight rebounds, many of both happening in the second half at crunch time. Forget the 3-10 shooting, and keep in mind that he really manned up when the game got close. Jones has got to finish better through contact.
- Eloy Vargas gets to go here. I thought he did some good things in limited minutes. He has toughened up a little, and that was good to see.
Not so superlatives:
- Marquis Teague falls in here today because he looked so out-of-control so often, but the kid made big plays down the stretch. Four assists against six turnovers is not going to garner much praise from me for a point guard, and he and Calipari are clearly not communicating well, I suspect because Teague isn't listening. He will start, or expect to see more of Lamb/Miller at the point than Teague.
- Doron Lamb is here because he didn't shoot well. His job is to shoot well. He didn't play that badly, though, particularly in relief of Teague.
- Kyle Wiltjer was great yesterday, not so great today. He had trouble with the stronger, more aggressive ODU forwards and wasn't making shots, or free throws.
Overall, I think UK needed this game. The 'Cats have not been physically challenged yet, even by Kansas, to the level they were today by ODU. It revealed a number of weaknesses in Kentucky's team, and also revealed some alternative strategies that Calipari can employ to offset a surprisingly tough challenge, #1 among them was how well Miller can initiate the offense.
Wiltjer, Davis and even Jones have got to learn to finish through contact. The whole team has got to stop missing free throws -- they have no excuse. This team has good shooting form from front to back, and 59% free throw shooting is simply unacceptable -- UK left five points out there because they didn't shoot a reasonable percentage from the line.
In the end, it was a victory I will take, and I'm sure Coach Cal is pleased to have this game to dissect on tape, it will be a great instructional video for the team. Overall, there is more positive than negative to say, and I really loved Kentucky's response when the game got tight. That's how you do it.