This was exactly the game that it appeared to be on paper. When the Eastern Michigan Eagles came into Rupp Arena, they were averaging barely more points per possession (0.88) than Kentucky allowed on defense (0.86). That is a recipe for disaster, and from the standpoint of the Eagles, that's exactly what happened.
EMU tried hard, and played hard, and we of the Big Blue Nation appreciate it. They are just not up to the task of facing an improving blue-chip team in front of 24,000 hostile fans. Combined with the Eagles' lack of ability to score, Kentucky's defense was just too much to ask them to overcome, or even compete with.
This was a remarkable defensive game for Kentucky. You might have expected them to come off the tough loss at Louisville down, or even disinterested in a team that they had to know they outclassed. To Kentucky's great credit, that did not come even remotely close to happening. While there is some criticism to be had in Kentucky's zone offense still, they defended EMU as though the Eagles had just come back from a television appearance where they told "Mama" jokes about Kentucky's players for two hours before the game. In other words, it was brutal, in part because EMU couldn't shoot straight, but mostly because UK would not let them.
- Willie Cauley-Stein and Ryan Harrow split the game ball. They both had super games, and Harrow's now comes as the third in a series of good games. Harrow had 15 points on 5-8 shooting, 4-5 from 3-point range. He had 8 assists, 4 turnovers and 2 steals, a couple of rebounds and a partridge in a pear tree. WCS had a double-double with 11 points on 5-6 shooting, 11 rebounds, 1 assist 2 blocks and a partridge in a pear tree. That looks pretty close to me.
- Nerlens Noel once again had a fantastic game. He nearly also had a double-double with 8 points, 3-4 shooting made both free throw attempts, had 13 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 1 assist and... well, okay he had a turnover also. If there is a stat, he had a number, okay. Great game.
- Archie Goodwin had a forgettable game. He was 3-6, had 8 points and a couple of rebounds, but that's about all. Goodwin just never seemed to get going, but against the zone, he was always going to have to be creative. He just wasn't that creative, although he did give his typical end-to-end effort.
- Alex Poythress had a very solid game in every respect. He still reverted to old habits on defense, but his line was solid: 5-8 from the field, 16 points and 5 rebounds. That rebound number is low, but otherwise, very solid.
- Kyle Wiltjer just keeps getting better, especially defensively. He made some terrific help plays on defense, and made several decisions that resulted in the right player making the play. That's called playing with your head, and even though Wiltjer is as physically unathletic as a person can be, he is learning to use his mind as well as his body. He's only going to get better. 17 points on 7-15 shooting, 3-6 from range, 5 rebounds, 2 assists.
- Julius Mays did what he does -- help the team win, and don't worry about sexy. 13 points, 3 rebounds, four assists, a steal and a couple of turnovers.
- Jarrod Polson had a solid game in his 11 minutes. He couldn't hit the broad side of the barn from five feet, but he got four rebounds and a couple of assists.
- Twany Beckham got nine minutes, and a rebound. Good to see him back on the floor, finally looking healthy.
Overall, the team was very good. They made free throws, they rebounded the ball, they were not perfect everywhere defensively but how can you complain about holding a team to under 25% from the field? I don't think you can. The only thing that deserves complaint is turnovers. 15 turnovers for this game feels like too much to me, and a lot of those were live turnovers - EMU had 8 steals against Kentucky. If there is one thing I'm not happy about, it's that.
Another thing I liked was the way we came out in the second half. UK has always come out very poorly after the half, but not tonight. Tonight, they came out, grabbed the Eagles by the neck and shook them like a rag doll. More, please.
I'm also disappointed in the way the Wildcats ran zone offense. They just never got the hang of it, and they must, because they are going to see an awful lot of zone this year. There's no way that Kentucky will be able to do as well against a better team, but I have to temper that complaint with the reality that Kentucky still shot over 50% from the field and 39% from 3.
Next up, the Vanderbilt Commodores in Memorial Gymnasium.