LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Nine thoughts on the University of Kentucky's 87-49 victory over Robert Morris in Rupp Arena.
1). First things first. In a program with a tradition like Kentucky's you don't get too many firsts, after all these years. Tonight was the first time in UK history that the Wildcats started five freshmen. Someday, Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young and Marcus Lee will be the answer to a trivia question. For UK coach John Calipari, they were the answer to the not-so-simple matter of adding to his rotation.
History sometimes swings on small events. This particular historic event hinged on Willie Cauley-Stein losing the opening tip in three straight games. Enter Marcus Lee, who was charged with winning the jump ball, infusing the starters with a bit of energy and playing on the front of a newly installed full-court press. He did all three, though Cauley-Stein soon made his regular appearance. Calipari subbed more than two dozen times in the first half. Along with Cauley-Stein he used Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Dominique Hawkins in a nine-man rotation that he seemed to like.
Lee, for one, embraced the press, and his role in it.
"I absolutely love pressing because that's where I shine," he said. ". . . You won't make it past half court because I won't let you. I love doing it. This is our first game actually trying it. Seeing how it went, I am really excited about it. We will see if more comes after today."
2). Most important thing second. Losing to Michigan State didn't set off any alarms for UK. But one aspect of the loss might have. After shrinking back from a confrontation with one of the nation's top backcourt tandems, doubts began to circulate about whether Andrew and Aaron Harrison would be good enough against the best guards on Kentucky's schedule to get the team where it wants to be. That probably wasn't fair, after one game. Nor is it fair after one game to declare that they're good to go and everything will be fine.
But UK fans have to breathe just a bit easier after what shooting guard Aaron Harrison did against Robert Morris. In prior games, Harrison has scored, but not been a threat that opponents had to expend a great deal of effort on. In fact, that's why he found himself so open so often against Robert Morris. He took advantage. He made 4 of 7 three-point tries and all 10 of his free throws, finishing with 28 points. He also hit about a 70-foot heave at the end of the first half that didn't count, but had the crowd buzzing.
"Individually, I feel a lot better," he said. "I set the ball up a lot better. This was just a confidence builder for the team really."
Andrew Harrison, meanwhile, will take a while to get where Calipari wants him as a point guard. That's not unusual, outside of Derrick Rose, just about every Calipari point guard has needed polishing. He did pull down eight rebounds, which is a big deal for a point guard, and scored eight points in 29 minutes.
"Andrew got better today, still doesn't have it," Calipari said. "We're not on the same page yet. I was really happy for Aaron, but Aaron has worked hard in practice, and it carried over."
3). Behind Andrew Harrison, Dominique Hawkins saw extended playing time and made the most of it. In fact, he had more assists (three) in 18 minutes than Andrew Harrison had in 29 (two), and did it without a turnover. Aside from Cauley-Stein, he had the most minutes off the bench, sixth-most on the team.
"Yeah, everything he's doing now he does in practice," Calipari said. "The kid works so hard. His heart rate is -- I have to stop him because I'm afraid he's going to fall out. He pushes so hard that you saw when he went in the game how he guarded the ball. He just goes up and he adds energy to the game. You saw how hard he runs the court so we could throw to him, so we could throw lobs, so we could throw to the post. He runs. You know, I'm not afraid to go to him. I'm just not. I think he's a pretty good player. He's good for our team."
Hawkins said he wasn't ready to go against Michigan State, but changed that against Robert Morris.
"I definitely feel more comfortable," he said. "In the Michigan State game, I was little bit surprised that I got in to be honest. This game I was a lot more comfortable, because I knew I was going to get some minutes. I was able to play the way that I wanted to play."
4). Julius Randle became just the fifth player in UK history to begin his college career with four straight double-doubles. He finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds. He shot only 9 times, and Calipari said the team didn't find him several times when it should have, but he was happy with Randle's play.
"He's a great passer, and here's what I keep telling our team: If you go through (Randle) they've got to stop him," Calipari said. "Michigan State let him go 8 out of 9 and we had a chance to win the game, a game we had no business being in. So they're going to double-team him, which makes it easy for the rest of your guys. But we're still learning."
The other players who began with at least four double-doubles at UK? Jim Andrews (7), Dan Issel (5), Cotton Nash (5) and Reggie Hanson (4). Not bad company.
5). Calipari said he re-worked some things after the Michigan State loss. He changed the offense up a bit. He put in a full-court press. He threw in some new out-of-bounds plays. He gave them some late-game scenarios.
"The stuff we were doing wasn't working," he told Tom Leach on his IMG Sports postgame radio program. "It's not about my ego, my stuff. It's how do I put these kids in position to play well? . . . We have practice tomorrow then another game and then I have four more days. We're starting to look like more like we need to look to play a game."
The press was difficult for Robert Morris to deal with. As was UK's half-court defense.
Larry Conley of ESPN2 used a good phrase to describe the Kentucky defense. He said the Wildcats were able to "shrink the floor with their size." It's a great description.
"I'm happy that we defended the way we did, we rebounded the way we did," Calipari said.
UK held Robert Morris to 23.2 percent shooting from the field, 26.1 percent from three-point range. It forced 11 turnovers on nine steals.
6). Lob City is not a mythical place. Players had been talking about lobs since preseason practice began, but their reality in games had not been so impressive. Against Robert Morris they finally began to execute the lob passes well. Calipari said there was a simple reason. "Everybody's got to run. You can't jog. Guys are running, so you're going to have that opportunity."
Lee said sprinting has been an emphasis: "That is one thing we stressed a lot this week, just sprinting up the court and seeing if we had anything. If we don't we can slow it down and then do our thing. It definitely made the game more fun. We had more chances to do things we didn't have to run a play for. We could just do what we wanted."
7). The Wildcats made 24 of 34 free-throws, to edge over the 70 percent mark for the game. It's no accident. Calipari has told each player he had to make 100 free throws before or after practice every day.
8). Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole beat the Wildcats last March in the NIT. Now he has seen the new edition. His impressions:
"Obviously, their talent is better than last years team. Last year they did not have a low-post presence that they could hurt us with. We had to make a choice going into the game today whether we were going to try and take away perimeter guys or try and flood the paint. We opted to try and flood the paint because we thought we could slow Randle down. You know, 10 points and 15 rebounds isn't bad, right? Unfortunately, they were able to hurt us from the perimeter and they haven't been able to have both things going this year. Last year they didn't have that low-post threat that we really had to focus on. We were able to take away Julius Mays on the perimeter and make Poythress put it on the floor and things like that, which we weren't able to do this year due to some of their backcourt play. I think from a defensive standpoint, Cauley-Stein was a great shot blocker last year and a great rim protector for them, but I think they have so much more size and length on the perimeter that it makes it difficult for you to run your offense."
Calipari said he did not view it as a revenge game, nor did he look at tape of last season's loss.
"It was a new group that I knew it would turn out different," he said. "I never looked at last year's tape to prepare for the game. I didn't want to see it. I've never looked at it, nor will I. That thing is over, this is a new team, and the last three days we did not talk about Robert Morris. As a matter of fact, I watched one tape and then I watched another one this morning. I'm concerned about my team, and I've got to get this right. So I don't want to do stuff to prepare for a game. We need to worry about us getting better, and if someone is good enough to beat us when we're playing good, then they're better than us and that's just too bad."
9). This game marked UK's first game in an exempt event it calls the Keightley Classic, named after legendary equipment manager and "Mr. Wildcat" Bill Keightley.
He was an original, and is distinctly deserving of the honor. I've always felt one of the most important pieces I'd ever write was a piece on Keightley's death, and trying to give perspective to his life. Scott Stricklin, then the sports information director at UK, graciously allowed me the chance to look into Bill's equipment room and office. It's only fitting to link tothat Courier-Journal column here, to remember the man for whom the tournament is named.
Copyright 2013 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved. Quotes from University of Kentucky Sports Information.