LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The University of Kentucky basketball team is going after title No. 9 this season, so as we'll do periodically, nine thoughts on the Wildcats' 93-63 win over Northern Kentucky Sunday in Rupp Arena.
1. These guys pose problems. That's perhaps an understatement, and they've yet to play a team their own size; though on closer examination, there likely aren't any teams in the NCAA their own size, so that point is moot. Nonetheless, the size UK presents, if its quickness is good enough to keep up with opponents, makes the Wildcats very tough to score against, even when they make defensive mistakes. A more talented, veteran team will be able to get easy shots against UK in the early season, but it's easy to see where the Wildcats could pose a nasty defensive matchup in the not-too-distant future, if they continue to embrace coach John Calipari's defensive instruction.
2. Was that a zone? Yes it was. Calipari doesn't like zone. But when you can put a team onto the court that can almost span sideline-to-sideline with wingspan, why not try it. There still was some confusion in the zone, and Calipari likely won't use it extensively, but it could be a weapon. At the very least, it gives Michigan State coach Tom Izzo something to think about.
"I just think it's something that we've got to prepare to play because of our size," Calipari said. "Now, we haven't worked on it enough that it's a really sloppy zone, but even being sloppy -- and I've tried to talk them through stuff, it's scrambling. You think about it. At one point I think we had 7-foot, 7-foot, 6'10", 6'7", 6'6". That is a big zone. That is a big zone."
In case the point isn't driven home -- that is a big zone.
3. UK showed more scramble on Sunday. There was evident effort. Julius Randle chased a missed free throw to the corner, then drove it all the way back in for a layup. Alex Poythress was on the floor, as was James Young. The Wildcats got the advantage on NKU early, and instead of letting up, they kept rolling the snowball.
4. Rebounding. The greatest improvement over any of the games the Wildcats have played was the rebounding performance Sunday, particularly early in the game. NKU didn't have the personnel to match UK on the boards, but that doesn't mean you're going to have an automatic rebounding edge (see: exhibitions vs. Transylvania and Montevallo). UK pummeled the Norse 51-23 on the glass.
"They are very, very skilled with their size," NKU coach Dave Bezold said. "We couldn't simulate this in practice and we tried. We built some extensions that were about three or four feet long with fake hands. Our managers did a heck of a job, but we still couldn't simulate. We needed them to be about 10 feet long. Purdue plays tremendously hard, they really do, they are a heck of a basketball team, but Kentucky is so big and skilled at every spot and they keep coming in waves at you. Probably the hardest thing is rebounding because they are very active and really, really talented."
5. Willie Cauley-Stein, who influenced UK's season-opening win with rebounding and defense, kept doing good things Sunday, pulling down 11 rebounds and adding one steal in 20 minutes. But his biggest contribution may be his ability to patrol around the rim and simply intimidate drivers or interior players from challenging him in close. Calipari sat him a bit to let Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee into the game, probably a good strategy with a third game in five days coming Tuesday.
6. Julius Randle continues to look like one of the best players in the nation. He had 22 points and 14 rebounds, made six of seven shots from the field and 10 of 14 from the line. He also led the team with three assists and had a blocked shot.
"When I walked out on the floor and saw how big they were, I thought about turning around and going back in the locker room for a little bit," Bezold said. "They are monsters. (Randle) is just physically so gifted and a special player. He is like all young kids, if he works really, really hard he is going to be special at this level and the next one, too. He is one guy that we really couldn't physically matchup with right now."
Calipari, predictably, still wasn't totally happy with Randle's game.
"He should be averaging 20 rebounds a game right now I would say," Calipari said. "But like, I was on him for stopping. He stops out there, and he finally took himself out for the first time this season. He took himself out. The only way he came out was the guy almost poked his eye out, so he had to come out. You can't play at the pace we play and stay in there for 15 minutes. You just can't do it. So they're all learning."
Randle is catching onto things quickly, however: "If I make 20 points, he is going to ask for 25," he said. "I am just out there trying my best and trying to get better."
7. Both Harrison twins scored in double-digits, and Andrew Harrison's second game at point guard showed a much higher comfort level than the first. "I think Andrew's holding the ball too long. Messing with it instead of just get to the lane, pull-up jumpers," Calipari said. "I thought Aaron played well again today. Aaron is playing really well. Aaron's defending pretty good. You know, we've got to get our guards rebounding a little bit better. Aaron didn't have any rebounds and that's an issue for us. But we got better today. That's all I'm worried about. We got better."
8. Alex Poythress is the player everyone expected to see a season ago. He had nine points, seven rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes. All of his points came early. He got a put-back, then hit a mid-range jumper from 15 feet, then nailed a three-pointer. Now, after two games last season, Poythress also looked destined for greatness. So a greater sample size is needed. Still, between Poythress and Marcus Lee, when added to the others, Calipari has an embarrassment of size and ability to put onto the court. Lee came off the bench and grabbed six rebounds.
"He has a spirit on the court," Calipari said. "He has an energy that he gives to the rest of his teammates. So we basically have eight guys that we could start. I'm doing the seven-man rotation. Isn't it great? A kid like Marcus Lee who is a McDonald's All-American trusts me and our staff. Tell me how you want me to play. You want me right now not to be in that seven? That's fine. I said if there's foul trouble injury you're in the seven. If I can figure out ways to slide you in, I'm going to. But this program is going to be about you, Marcus Lee. I just need you to get better. I'm going to coach you and I'm going to develop you, and understand right now these guys are ahead of you, but that doesn't mean anything. You know what he responds? Greatest kid. Tried to leave the locker room, he forgot shoes he was walking out with bare feet. I said what are you doing? He said, oh, I forgot my shoes."
9. Tuesday, the Wildcats get their toughest test of the season, by far, when they face Michigan State in Chicago. Calipari said his aims for the game are modest. He hopes to win, but he hopes even more to learn. Calipari's thoughts, in extended form, on the matchup:
"We win or we learn. That's what this game will be. We win or we learn. What I think is we don't play hard enough. I don't think we cut hard enough on offense. I think we stand around. Instead of being prepared to shoot, we're standing straight up and down, so now we walk. The guy throws it to you and you start running because you're standing straight up and down. I think when the shot goes up, we turn our heads and we're going to get bulldozed in that game. There is a lesson. Okay, now, will you listen to me?
"I think what they'll try to do is beat us up the court, fly, and we don't fly every time. They're going to get lay-ups or open threes. That's how they play. The other thing I think you'll get from this is we're not playing throughout the possession. They'll grind us and we'll learn. The only way -- like we've gotten change right now. But when you really want change, it's got to be a crisis. Crisis brings about change. Meetings and talking and tape and all that, no. Now the crisis hits. Are you ready to change now?
"Happened to Marquis Teague a year ago. When he was ready to change, our team took off. We've got a lot of guys here that are listening, but not carrying it over yet. So, look, we're going to go up and play hard and how about this one? When adversity hits, how does this team respond? You don't think they can go on a five basket run on us or six-basket, seven-basket run? All right. How do we respond? We don't know yet, until we get in those wars and that game is one of those. I just wish it wasn't so early. I wish I had another two weeks with my team so we could have a better kind of showing."