CRAWFORD | UK's win over Illinois State comes with message to Ulis: Get well soon
Playing without sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, the top-ranked University of Kentucky basketball team struggled but pulled away midway through the second half for a 12-point win over Illinois State.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — What can be taken from Kentucky’s 75-63 win over Illinois State at Rupp Arena Monday night?
Keep Tyler Ulis healthy. Put him in one of those bubbles. Only bring him out for special occasions. Get him a special elbow pillow. Wrap it in the plastic stuff your grandmother used to cover the furniture. Something. Anything.
Without Ulis, Kentucky found a way to win against a solid Illinois State team. But it wasn’t pretty.
The Redbirds (3-5) already had battled No. 2 Maryland to an 11-point loss on a neutral court. They were, from a Pomeroy rating standpoint, seven spots below the Saint Louis team Louisville played Saturday night, by comparison. After the game, UK, ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and ESPN Coaches polls, fell to No. 2 in Pomeroy's index, behind Villanova. But those distinctions don't matter. Regaining the services of Ulis, who suffered a hyperextended elbow in Friday's win, does.
“Without Tyler, it's obvious we're not the same team,” UK coach John Calipari said. “I mean, unless you were watching another game, we're not the same team. But it still doesn't mean that we shouldn't play hard and guys shouldn't battle and fight for balls. We got beat to everything in the first half.”
Illinois State wasn’t cowed by Kentucky’s rating or by Rupp Arena. What it couldn’t do was handle the Wildcats’ dribble penetration. Against Kentucky’s quick guards, all the Redbirds could do was grab. And grab. And grab.
Kentucky went to the line 46 times to Illinois State’s 10. And it could have been more. The Wildcats missed four front-end free-throws in the bonus in the game.
Otherwise, Calipari got to take a look at freshman Isaiah Briscoe at point guard.
“I’m happy that we got to see him,” Calipari said. “The beginning of the game, he just -- three turnovers in three minutes. OK now. It's not an easy position to play.”
Without Ulis on the court, Calipari needed his other guards to penetrate and dish, and after a shaky start, they did.
After leading by only two at half, UK played with better defensive energy to open the second and led by 16 after eight minutes, but couldn’t pull away. In fact, Illinois State had a chance to cut its deficit to six late, but ran out of steam at the end playing its fourth game in six days.
“Jamal (Murray) didn't play in the first half. Skal (Labissiere) really gave us nothing the whole game. But this is a good thing,” Calipari said. “Because now – Alex (Poythress) gave us nothing in the first half. The thing about elite athletes and world-class athletes, they can evaluate their performance and say, all right, I got to fix this. They self-evaluate and that's what this team needs to do.”
And, in the event that anyone doesn’t self-evaluate, Calipari is happy to do it for them.
Illinois State puts five players on the court with the ability to handle the ball and drive. It just didn’t play anywhere near the kind of defense it needed to play, and Kentucky in the second half did show some toughness on the defensive end and in rebounding.
Marcus Lee, sent to the bench after Calipari was displeased with his effort in Miami against South Florida, came into the game and brought some fire. He finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds for the second double-double of his career (the first coming against Duke on Nov. 17).
“One of the things I told him is, if you're not playing with energy, I'm not playing you,” Calipari said. “You got a player like Marcus Lee, who, if he's to make it, it's going to be on one thing. He's an energy guy who can cover a bunch of positions and flies. And you need that kind of player on your team.”
Briscoe had a career-high 18 points and seven rebounds, he also had three assists. He had five turnovers. Murray finished with 16 points, including 9 of 13 from the free-throw line.
The Wildcats finished 29-46 from the line. Their 22 field goals came on just eight assists, though Illinois State fouls had something to do with suppressing the assist total.
Still, in the end, the Wildcats made only 2 of 12 three-pointers, played without their point guard and floor leader, got just two points, two rebounds and one shot attempt from Labissiere and still beat a team that will contend in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“Look, you don't want to go through a season where every game is easy,” Calipari said. “This stuff is not easy. So, this was a hard game for us. This was, to be honest, the schedule we played to this point has not been easy for us. We had four freshmen out there today. Come on.”
All the same, they better protect Ulis. They’ll head West on Tuesday to spend a couple of days preparing for Thursday’s 9 p.m. matchup with UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. Calipari said he doesn’t think Ulis will practice on Tuesday, but says he’ll need to practice Wednesday to see where he is.
“If he can't go, we'll go as is,” Calipari said. “We'll play with what we have.”
Hopefully, for the Wildcats’ sake, that won’t be for very long.
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