Tonight in Rupp Arena, the Kentucky Wildcats begin their crusade to repair the damage done by the stunning loss to Gardner-Webb two weeks ago and regain their footing against the Flames of Liberty University.
Liberty is a member of the Big South Conference, which includes such worthies as UNC-Ashville, Winthrop (who you may remember from last year), High Point (Tubby Smith's alma mater) and Charleston Southern. Liberty is 2-3 on the year, their most recent game a win at East Carolina, 55-53.
Like Kentucky, Liberty has a brand new coach. Ritchie McKay, former coach of the University of New Mexico who was fired to make room for Steve Alford at UNM, replaces Randy Dutton on the bench after he was fired immediately after a home loss to VMI in the conference tournament last year. Liberty is expected to be in transition this year, with Larry Blair the nation's 15th leading scorer, having graduated last year.
The starting five for the Flames are likely to be as follows:
Alex McLean, a senior forward from New York, 6'8", 235#. McLean currently averages 12.4 p/8.4r per game. McLean is a big, strong guy and does almost all his damage inside the paint.
Rell Porter, a senior forward from Pittsburgh, 6'7", 195#. Porter averages 5.8p/3.4r/1.8a and is a multi-dimensional glue guy who can score inside and out. He is not that strong, though, and as a result, doesn't get that many rebounds. Not a great 3-point shooter, but will jack it up out there if open.
B.J. Jenkins, a sophomore combo guard from Virginia Beach, 6'0", 178#. Jenkins is averaging 10.6p/4.4r/3.4a. He is a do-everything guard who can shoot, pass, and break you down off the dribble. He is the team's best 3 point shooter.
Anthony Smith, a junior wing from Texas, 6'5", 215#. Smith is the team's second leading scorer and rebounder at 12.2p/5.6r/1.2a per game. Smith is a big, powerful wing very much in the mold of Joe Crawford. he has been cold from 3 point range this year, but last year shot .393 from the arc, so he hasn't shown what he is capable of yet.
TeeJay Bannister, a fifth-year senior point guard from Jacksonville. Bannister averages 10p/1.5r/4a, and most of his points come off penetration. Bannister is having the same problem as Ramel Bradley with turnovers, and is a poor 3-point shooter for a player his size, currently averaging only .167 from the arc. He doesn't shot the ball that much, but is effective off the dribble.
Liberty's most productive bench players are Kyle Ohman, a 6'4"/200# sophomore wing, Justin Holland, 6'0"/175# junior guard, and Russell Monroe, 6'11/235# senior center.
Liberty plays a ball-control offense and a deliberate style. McKay believes that when you are less talented than your opponent, you have to value possessions and control the tempo. The Flames will try to keep the game in the 60's, where they feel they can be competitive.
Liberty really isn't a very good shooting or rebounding team. Assist to turnover is 1.15/1, exactly like Kentucky.
Offensive efficiency-wise, the Flames currently rank 285th, which doesn't include their most recent victory. Kentucky weighs in at 224th.
Defensively, Kentucky is a much better team than Liberty, 41st in DE compared to 180th for Liberty. Kentucky generates 8.5 steals and 3 blocks per game against Liberty's 5.8 and 1.6, respectively.
Liberty is small inside compared to most teams, but not that small compared to UK when it comes to the starters. We are larger in the back court, however, and we can bring many more big people off the bench than Liberty can.
You have to figure these favor Kentucky playing at home after an embarrassing loss. But as Billy Gillispie said yesterday:
On the plus side, the Wildcats outtalent Liberty by a wide margin. They have had two weeks of intense practice to prepare, and the Cats should expect a much better performance than we saw last time.
On the negative side, Kentucky is even more injured than they were last time they played. There is no firm rotation right now, and running players in and out has a negative impact on chemistry and so far has not produced the kind of effort UK fans have hoped for. In addition, the last team to beat Kentucky played a ball-control offense, so if Gillispie has not yet managed to sufficiently instill his defensive philosophy into the Cats, anything can happen.
I expect we will win, but I will refrain from offering a score. This team is in a retooling mode now, and I have no more idea what to expect than I did before the first game. Hopefully, we will see signs of improvement, but I am prepared to see the Cats struggle again.