The Cats got off to a quick, but shaky defense led to a back and forth battle in the first half. Jacob Toppin picked up two fouls relatively early, and Oscar Tshiebwe also picked up two fouls. However, despite some ugly basketball and questionable lineups, Kentucky was able to take a 37-36 lead into the break, a highlight of which included a rare inbounds play for a Chris Livingston basket.
In the second 20 minutes, Kentucky came out hot and extended their lead, but again, a back-and-forth battled ensued as UK could never quite put together a run to really put the game away. However, Toppin took over, Wallace took over, and Sahvir Wheeler slowed things down late to help put the game out of reach.
Big win for the Cats!
Next up, the Cats will return to the friendly confines of Rupp Arena to take on a solid Yale Bulldogs squad next Saturday afternoon.
Sahvir Wheeler stepped up late
Look, I probably give Wheeler too much heat, but he’s simply not the answer as Kentucky’s primary point guard. He has too many deficiencies to be the starting point guard playing 30+ minutes per game on a National Championship team.
Wheeler can be disruptive on the defensive end, but teams can clearly take advantage of his size, especially in the pick-and-roll with Tshiebwe defending, where both guys struggle to defend opposing offenses.
While Wheeler does a good job of finding open players, that doesn't necessarily mean he’s good at running the offense. He's too chaotic and his inability to shoot is obviously a huge liability. He’s a very solid bench option, but he shouldn't play as much as he does, and Cason Wallace should be given the reins immediately. He’s an elite defender, better shooter, and more dangerous on the offensive end.
The 5-foot-8 point guard did suffer an elbow injury in the first half on a hard fall, but he returned and made an impressive three-pointer falling away as the shot clock hit zeros. Not everything’s bad, especially as he really helped Kentucky put the game away late, which is why I believe it’s important for him to play, simply just not as much as he does.
Quality bench minutes
I’m of the mind that Calipari needs to shrink the rotation a bit and/or at least use players in a position that will allow them to thrive. For example, Daimion Collins is a five and Livingston is a four. Playing them at the four and three, respectively, not only hurts the team, but it doesn't allow them to play to their strengths.
However, Collins, Livingston, and Ugonna Kingsley Onyenso gave some great minutes off the bench. Collins needs to stop shooting jump shots, which may be the result of him playing the four, but he was aggressive on the glass and defensive end. Livingston crashes the boards hard and plays under control. Onyenso possibly has the most potential on the team as he understands his current role and blocks shots at will.
As we discuss rotations, though, it should be noted that Lance Ware barely played and Adou Thiero did not play. I think Ware is a victim, and rightfully so, of shrinking the rotation, but I’m still not sure why Thiero isn't getting more playing time. Thiero has shown that he’s a capable shooter, and he’s not afraid to attack the rim.
Antonio Reeves showed up, CJ Fredrick did not
Well, a big topic of conversation early on this season has been Reeves and Fredrick’s play against top competition. Both teams have looked good against bad teams, but both have disappeared against quality opponents.
The good news is the big stage did not scare of Reeves in this one, or should I say Threeves. He was not afraid to shoot the ball, and he was on his game today. He does struggle defensively, but he spreads the floor and can hit shots, and that’s so pivotal for this team.
The bad news is Fredrick was still a no-show. He played limited minutes and didn’t do much in his time. He did hit a three in the second half that extended Kentucky’s lead to six, but they have to have more. The Cats NEED Fredrick to start stepping up. He’s a veteran and came in touted as one of the best shooters in the country, but he hasn't exactly lived up to expectations so far.
Kentucky needs both guys playing well to maximize their potential.
Rebounding was impressive
For second straight game, the Cats have looked much better on the glass. There were concerns early on that they may not be physical enough as rebounding was a significant issue, even against lesser competition.
Of course, it helped to have Tshiebwe return, but rebounding was still an issue. My only real concern is it appears teams have stopped hitting offensive glass to slow Kentucky down in transition. This may be why the numbers are getting better, but limiting offensive possessions is important, so I’ll take along with Big O’s ability to grab offensive boards.
This team has so much potential, and maybe they're finally figuring things out. We always say Cal’s teams look better as the season goes on and this was a huge step in the right direction.