In front of 23,740 rabid Rupp Arena fans Friday night, the Kentucky Wildcat freshmen trio of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, and Doron Lamb showed why the future of UK basketball is as bright as the sun itself. So bright in fact, that UK’s 88-65 season-opening victory over an NCAA Tournament-level East Tennessee State squad, seemed a mere footnote to the dazzling show put on by the three highly touted rookies.
Eschewing, in the most exciting way possible, any thoughts by Kentucky fans of the youth brigade being overly nervous in their collegiate debuts, the trio announced their presence with authority, scoring 34 of Kentucky’s 50 first half points. So much for being nervous.
For the game, the three newcomers combined to score 62 points on 23-42 shooting (54.7%), make nine of 15 three-point attempts (60.0% — this should at least temporarily put to rest the three-point questions permeating Big Blue Nation), grab 21 rebounds, dish out all 10 of UK’s assists, and amazingly, turn the ball over only three times (that stat still boggles my mind, as does this: Jones, in 35 minutes of play, committed zero turnovers). All in a combined 95 minutes of action.
UK coach John Calipari summed-up the performances of his three fresh-faced ‘Cats this way: “I thought Brandon (Knight) had a great floor game. I thought he ran the team, he was in control. He went when he should have, he shot when he should have. That is amazing after the practices we’ve had. Doron (Lamb) made shots, made plays; three assists, one turnover. I thought he defended almost as well as I’ve seen him defend this year. Terrence (Jones), other than a bad start in the second half — the first two or three minutes of the second half — really competed.”
The “bad start in the second half” Calipari jokingly refers to as he talked about Terrence Jones, is the 12 straight points the forward scored to open the second stanza, ballooning UK’s lead from 50-37 to 62-42. Jones’ 12 point outburst effectively ended the game; ETSU would get no closer than 17 points the rest of the night.
When asked what got him going, what got him juiced, Jones responded, “Him,” meaning Coach Cal. “He always pushes me. That’s why I came here. I knew he’d push me.” Well, all Calipari did was push Jones into an historic 25 point, 12 rebound performance — Jones is the first Wildcat to have a double-double in his first game as a ‘Cat since Jules Camara in the 1998-’99 season; Jones is also the first ‘Cat since Sam Bowie in 1979 to begin his career with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds.
Cal also pushed Lamb into a 20 point (3-5 three-pointers), five rebound, three assist opening night. For the first time in school history, two freshmen (Jones & Lamb) scored at least 20 points in the season opener.
And finally, Cal pushed point guard Brandon Knight into a performance best described as confidence-building: In 32 minutes of action, Knight scored 17 points, dished out five assists (to only two turnovers) and made 4-7 three-pointers. If UK fans were deliriously dropping Rolaids in anxious anticipation of how their new point guard would perform, rest easy and put away the anti-acids, the basketball is in good hands. As Cal noted, Knight’s decision-making skills seem to be at an advanced stage, relative to his youth. In addition, Knight’s court vision and ability to deliver a strike to an open teammate are indeed impressive. And perhaps the most welcome sight to UK fans; Knight’s picture-perfect jumper certainly adds a weapon to UK’s arsenal that was lacking last year from the point guard spot.
Other superlatives, as well as areas of concern, from UK’s 2,024 victory:
• Kentucky’s post defense was, in a word, lacking. Six–foot-eight junior forward Isiah Brown, who averaged 7.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season for ETSU, poured in 25 points and snagged 12 rebounds for the Buccaneers. The second half, though, saw the Cats slow Brown’s production to something less than an onslaught (after going 8-10 in the first half, Brown was only 4-9 from the field in the second half), but guarding the opponent’s big man will continue to be a point of emphasis for UK.
Without Enes Kanter taking up space in the middle, UK will look to Jones, Josh Harrellson, and Eloy Vargas to at least slow down the opposition’s inside attack. After losing the points in the paint battle 32-26 to ETSU, the ‘Cats should be motivated to find an answer.
• On the plus side of the paint play ledger, UK battered the Bucs on the boards 51-33, with Kentucky gathering 19 offensive rebounds (an impressive 42.2% offensive rebound rate).
• Another net positive to come out of the Wildcat victory was the team’s 13-26 three-point accuracy. Everyone with a pulse knows the ‘Cats absolutely must shoot the ball from the perimeter markedly better than they did last year, or risk the season being very long and ultimately unsatisfying. But, if the ‘Cats aim on Friday night is any indication … BBN, you can now exhale.
• And finally, the juniors, otherwise known as Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins: The duo’s efforts on Friday night can most accurately be described as solid. Combining to score 22 points (Liggins 14, Miller 8), grab 14 rebounds (Ligs came through with 11, giving him a double-double), and make 4-9 trey tries, the gray beards provided the ‘Cats with steady, if not spectacular production (although Miller’s 11 rebounds was impressive).
But, one caveat regarding Liggins — I don’t expect him to lead the team in scoring, but I do expect him to score (in the 10-15 point range). I don’t expect him to lead the team in rebounding, but I do expect him to rebound (in the 5-7 range). I do, though, expect Liggins to play ferocious defense, as he did last year, and lead the team in floor burns.
After exiting Calipari’s dog house last season, Liggins provided a palpable lift to the team with his sticky, energetic defense, and his undying commitment to win every loose ball available. That type of play makes one a valuable commodity, and an inspiration to teammates. If Liggins carries over that attitude into this season, the ‘Cats will be a much tougher team to beat.
And we end on a high note, and with something I’m sure all Kentucky fans will appreciate: The youthful ‘Cats learned how to win, in the very first game of the season. They put their opponent in a hole and never let them out. Something last year’s team struggled with.
Strap in sports fans, looks like this could be fun.
Up next for UK is a visit to Portland, Oregon to take the the University of Portland Pilots at the Rose Garden. Game day is Friday, game time is 10:30 EST, game channel is ESPNU.
Leadership for Leaders