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UK Basketball: Notes on an Auspicious First Week

The 'Cats have emerged unscathed from what is probably the toughest three-game stretch to commence a season in the Calipari era.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky basketball appears very much bound for college basketball prosperity in 2016 as it enters the softer portion of its non-conference schedule (Wright State, Boston, USF, and Illinois State).  There are deficiencies which require attention (most notably, free throw shooting), to be sure, but this team is further along than any of us could have reasonably projected at this point.

The ‘Cats currently possess an 18 point average margin of victory over a trio of viable adversaries - Albany (the reigning AEC Champs who challenged Oklahoma to the very last minute in the Second Round of last season's NCAA Tournament), NJIT (a 21 win team that made a notable run in last season's CIT), and #5 Duke (you know).

Blue-tinted Rec Specs glued to my head or not, Kentucky has amassed the best body of work in college basketball thus far in this tremendously young season.


Obviously, the highlight has been the victory over Duke.   I'm only willing to go as far as calling it an extremely respectable non-conference victory over a bitter rival.  In college basketball, no meaningful honors -- or at least honors that a program the stature of UK should be interested in -- are claimed in mid-November.  Both of these teams will almost certainly sparkle brighter in March (and perhaps April) than they do now.

If Kentucky finds itself slotted in at the 1 line and Duke at 2 (which would be my postulation, as things stand), it's likely that the Selection Committee will ensure that the two marquee programs are in the same region.  I loathe military analogies in sports, but while regular season victories are significant battles, postseason victories are clearly crucial to winning the war.  We may see Duke again, so I'll keep my reveling respectful, and to a minimum.

I still appraise these teams as fairly equal in terms of overall talent and ability.  K seemed to realize quickly that primarily playing a true PG-less lineup is not the way to beat an athletic and transition-oriented squad like UK, ultimately playing freshman PG Derryck Thornton 29 minutes, the most minutes he's logged in a game all season.  Grayson Allen is very unlikely to go 2-11 from the field again this season.  The same goes for Brandon Ingram, a 2016 top 3 NBA draft pick, and 1-6.  I also address the primary difference between this, the second crop of one-and-dones at Duke, and last year's below, a conundrum that K will likely solve by March, if not much earlier.

That said, having watched all of both teams' games this season, it was apparent to me that UK played slightly better than I expected them to and Duke played considerably worse than I expected.

I am fully aware that schools cannot schedule in a vacuum, but UK head coach John Calipari and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart demonstrated their prowess in handling and preparing young players by getting Albany and NJIT on the schedule prior to the Champions Classic showdown.  Conversely, K scheduled small-conference cellar dwellers (Siena and Bryant) to prepare the equally green Blue Devils for Kentucky.  Grayson Allen (and Brandon Ingram, to an extent) were visibly frustrated upon realizing that Kentucky presents a markedly different challenge than a previously sub-.500 MAAC program (Siena).

UK appeared to be in midseason form and Duke looked a lot like what we have become used to seeing from Cal's young teams early in the season - enormous quantities of athleticism, evident individual talent, but with a maddening lack of cohesion.

K might have adopted the Cal recruiting philosophy prior to last season, and he obviously had overhwelming success primarily on the backs of a trio of one-and-dones (Okafor, Winslow, and Jones), but K's 2014 freshmen didn't really play like freshmen.  They possessed the maturity and poise of much older players.  From what we saw Tuesday night, K's freshmen (and other underclassmen) played like typical highly skilled freshmen/underclassmen.  With monumental expectations in place as returning champions, and an even more intense microscope due to K's recent embrace of the "one-and-done" philosophy, getting this group to play together may prove to be one of the more formidable challenges of K's coaching career.


As far as freshman guards at Kentucky go, Jamal Murray has the most basketball ability of any that I can recall watching.  Murray tends to force too much at times and is occasionally reckless, but that is a function of his seemingly innate ability to be everywhere, especially where he stands to help his team the most, all at the same time.  Seriously, rewatch the Duke game.  Murray is always doing something, namely putting himself into position to catch and shoot or open up the paint on offense and then helping on defense on just about every trip to that end of the floor.

Murray is reminiscent of former Washington Huskie and NBA All-Star Brandon Roy, a two-way SG who really knew how to create his own shot and score with volume but also knew how to find others when they were in position to score.  When healthy, Roy was always good for 20 points and 5 assists per night.

Offensively, Murray is a danger from anywhere.  As a shot creator, for both himself and others, his skills are already at a NBA level.  He plays above the rim and is remarkably accurate from the perimeter.  He can make the open shot or the tough shot through contact.

Though Skal Labissiere is clearly a premier big man nationally, and his polished offensive talent is more than evident, he is a work in progress overall.  He's hapless on the glass and appears very fragile on defense, though his block numbers have been better than I expected (2.3 per game).  It was encouraging to see Kentucky notch a double digit victory over Duke in which the ostensible offensive centerpiece logged just thirteen minutes.

Even though Skal's foul trouble in the Duke contest undoubtedly contributed to Cal playing a nine-man rotation, I was pleased to see it early against a top-tier opponent, even if was just an experiment.  It makes me feel very comfortable to know that Derek Willis and Isaac Humphries can contribute when called upon.

Tyler Ulis is the perfect point guard to hold this team together and he is a top point guard nationally.  As many of you know, I believe there is still one point guard who is better and more talented overall, Providence's Kris Dunn (please actually watch him play a few games before arguing with me; he is basically Rajon Rondo circa 2008 with a versatile offensive game plus 3 inches and 20 pounds; he's averaging 21-7-4-4-2), but there is no better point guard for this group than Ulis.

This is one of the very few times in which I'm willing to rely solely on the eye test to make a point, and I don't anticipate much argument from anyone.  Ulis' basketball IQ is native and optimal.  He just seems to know exactly what needs done and when, whether it's overly aggressive defense to catalyze the rest of the group on that end, a clutch basket, a drive to spread the floor, or an encouraging word.

Finally, my favorite ‘Cat to watch so far this year has been Isaiah Briscoe.  The effort he puts in and heart he consistently displays is MKG-esque.  Further, the mouth guard thing is endearing, he grabbed 12 rebounds against NJIT and played a very efficient game against Duke.  Any freshman guard who plays 31 minutes against an opponent of Duke's ilk, shoots above 60% with 10+ points, turns the other team over twice, and limits his own turnovers to one is extraordinary, in my estimation.

Looking Forward

Though it's never advisable to overlook an opponent, the ‘Cats have time to breathe over the next two weeks or so.  The next big name on the UK schedule is UCLA, though the Bruins have struggled thus far, opening the season with a disconcerting overtime loss at home to Monmouth and a slim victory over Cal Poly.  They take on Pepperdine tonight.

Watch closely, Big Blue Nation.  We are witnessing the strongest start, in terms of performance and opponent strength, the ‘Cats have ever had under Coach Cal.  With such a firm foundation in place, great things loom ahead.