BOZICH | Three praises, two questions after Kentucky beats Alban - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Three praises, two questions after Kentucky beats Albany in opener

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Former Bullitt East star Derek Willis scored a career high 14 points for UK Friday night. Former Bullitt East star Derek Willis scored a career high 14 points for UK Friday night.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – There’s never been a furrow in John Calipari’s brow during opening night at Rupp Arena with the University of Kentucky basketball season.

Six wins in six home openers for Calipari.

All by at least 16 points. Two by 50 or more. The average victory margin in the six-game package has been 35.5.

You can add a seventh game to the package, although at times this one stirred a mid-sized furrow for the head coach. Kentucky defeated Albany, 78-65, Friday night.

"We only outrebounded that team by six rebounds," Calipari said. "Why? Fight. Grit. If they make any shots (Albany was 1 for 14 from the three-point line) they beat us. They just didn't make shots."

Make a note that the Great Danes played in the NCAA Tournament last season and that Ken Pomeroy’s computer projection has Albany winning 20 games this season.

The Wildcats are not the complete overpowering package you saw last season. But nobody in America is.

They don’t have the muscle or skill in the low post without Karl-Anthony Towns, who is averaging more points in the NBA (16.1) than he did at UK (10.3). But nobody in America does.

The Wildcats won’t have to be as solid as they were last season to be a force when it matters. Calipari has plenty of toys to play with again. Plenty. He’ll just need more time to tinker.

And, for the record, Calipari started his press conference by discussing how difficult it was for him to concentrate on the game after watching the news about the terrorist attack in Paris.

"I couldn't get my mind on the game," Calipari said. "The (assistant) coaches were like, 'C'mon, c'mon.' I said, 'Just hold it for a second'  ... I just don't get it."

Three praises, and two questions, on the victory:

1. Crowd Favorite: Derek Willis

Kentucky fans love Kentucky products. You know, Kentucky Proud.

There have not been many homegrown guys plugged into the starting lineup during the first six seasons of the Calipari Era. The stars have arrived from North Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey and other points on the map.

Derek Willis, Bullitt East, Class of 2013, did not start against Albany. But Willis played like a guy who intends to grind his way into the lineup soon. In fact, Calipari started him in the second half.

Willis performed the way everybody expected him to play after he turned down scholarships from Louisville, Indiana, Purdue and others to sign with Kentucky in 2013.

Willis, a junior, topped his career high (6 points) less than 12 minutes into the game, showing an edge around the glass as well as his proven ability to shoot from the perimeter. He finished with 14 points and five rebounds in 28 minutes.

"I liked what I saw in Derek Willis," Calipari said. "He made a lot of mistakes in the second half but you watched him and said, 'He's just playing.' "

You expect him to make a pair of three-point shots. A more encouraging sign was that Willis got to the foul line enough to earn four free throws – and made them all.

All Willis needs is an edge – and more playing time. He showed the edge Friday night – and earned more clock.

"I'm proud of him," Calipari said. "He's fighting for minutes."

"It's not that he's not a really good basketball player," said Albany coach Will Brown. "It's just that he's had plenty of lottery picks ahead of him. Now it's his turn."

2. Giving the Keys To Ulis

Tyler Ulis could have started at point guard for Kentucky last season. In fact, after his splendid performance against Louisville in December, I thought it was time for Ulis to run the team.

When Ulis played, the ball moved, the pace quickened and the Wildcats took complete advantage of their overwhelming athleticism.

But John Calipari was loyal to the Harrison Twins, a decision that resulted in 38 consecutive victories and one avoidable Final Four loss to Wisconsin.

There is no discussion which player is running this Kentucky team. It‘s Ulis.

He delivered. The ball moved. The pace was quicker.

Ulis led the Wildcats in minutes – and positive body language. He played a team-high 37 minutes, scoring a dozen points. Ulis will need to dial back the turnovers (five), but he looked like a guy ready to run this basketball team. He carries himself as if he's enjoying every second.

"I said it to everybody that I talked to before the game," Brown said. "Tyler Ulis is the best point guard in the country."

3.  Matthews for Briscoe

Isaiah Briscoe missed the game against the Great Danes with a tender knee. The start did not go to Alex Poythress. It went to another freshmen – Charles Matthews.

That gave Kentucky a three-guard set as well as a lineup that featured three freshmen (Matthews, center Skal Labissiere and guard Jamal Murray), a sophomore (Ulis) and junior Marcus Lee, the sole forward.

Matthews scored the Wildcats’ opening basket, slashing across the lane from the left wing for a dunk. He finished with four points in 15 minutes.

Murray, the guy who starred for the Canadian junior team last summer, showed that he understands how to score. Murray led the Wildcats in points (19) and assists (8). He played like a junior, not a freshman, although Calipari was not ecstatic about his ball-handling.

Calipari said he was unsure if Briscoe would play Saturday night.

4. Where’s the Beef?

Not everything Kentucky did deserved a high-five. The Wildcats’ half-court offense needs work. This team does not have the bulk it had with Towns or Julius Randle two years ago. This group does not have a guy who can hang out on the low block and score at will.

Albany had 38 points in the paint, four more than Kentucky. The Wildcats had only 11 second-chance points.

That’s the primary question with the Wildcats: Will they have enough strength around the glass to pound with the teams (and there aren’t many of them) that will make them play a half-court game?

Calipari described it as a lack of toughness and grit from his players. 

"If you want to play, be that guy (who scraps on the glass)," Calipari said. "That guy (who plays with an edge) is going to play on this team."

Labissiere needs time in the weight room. He’s a finesse guy. Lee beats you with quickness and bounce, not muscle. Willis looks more comfortable facing the basket.

Labissiere did not have a field goal in the first half. He only worked free for a single shot.

That changed in the second half. He scored twice in the first six minutes, once on a sweeping shot from the right side of the rim and again after twisting under the rim for a sharp reverse layup. He finished with nine points. But the power game did not look like a strength of Labissiere or this Kentucky team.

5. Opening Night Noise

This was game one, not 31, not 21 or even five. You don’t expect perfect spacing, rotations or ball movement. John Calipari needed to use this game as well as the game Saturday night against the New Jersey Institute of Technology to experiment with rotations and playing time.

But the Wildcats were sloppy with the basketball, turning it over 20 times, 11 in the first half. Ulis and Murray had half the turnovers. Kentucky averaged only 1.1 points per possession.

"Ten turnovers from my guards is not going to get it done," Calipari said. 

Too many careless passes. Some over dribbling. The usual forced shots you in a season opener.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All Rights Reserved.

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