'We're just not as good as we think we are': Focus on UK defense after exhibition opener
LEXINGTON – John Calipari has made no secret that whoever defends best will have the inside track to the final two spots in Kentucky basketball’s starting lineup.
After allowing Kentucky Wesleyan to shoot 56.3% from the field in the second half of a 95-72 exhibition win Friday, it is fair to say that battle remains ongoing.
"I told them after the game, 'If you can play interior defense, you're going to play for us,'" Calipari said. "So you want to play? Play interior defense. I know Oscar (Tshiebwe) was out. ... But it doesn't matter. We had other guys. We tried two or three different guys to say, ‘Let's go, let's see how you do.’ Didn't do very well."
After the Blue-White scrimmage, Calipari confirmed junior point guard Sahvir Wheeler, freshman guard TyTy Washington and junior forward Oscar Tshiebwe had taken an early lead for three of the starting spots. Against Kentucky Wesleyan, Calipari started super senior guard Kellan Grady at the three and junior forward Keion Brooks at the four.
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Brooks responded with 18 points on 7-of-12 shooting. He made 4-of-6 3s and grabbed eight rebounds. Grady was less effective offensively with just 7 points on 3-of-8 shooting.
Despite Brooks’ stellar offensive performance, Calipari made it clear both starting spots remain up for grabs.
"You're just looking offense," Calipari said. "I told them, 'I need dogs.' Who are the dogs C'mon. Show me who you are."
Kentucky’s interior defensive issues were complicated in the exhibition opener by the fact that Tshiebwe was limited with hip soreness. The West Virginia transfer tallied 11 points and 10 rebounds in 17 minutes but did not play in the final 13:24 of the game.
When Tshiebwe was on the floor, UK outscored Kentucky Wesleyan by 26 points. When he was on the bench, the Panthers outscored Kentucky by three points.
The one Kentucky player who seemed to earn a larger role thanks to his defensive work was super senior guard Davion Mintz, who Calipari lauded for his effort with 12 points and six assists in 24 minutes off the bench.
"I learned that we’re just not as good as we think we are," Brooks said. "We got some stuff we need to tighten up, but we have a good team in terms of spacing the floor, getting in the lanes, and finding the right plays for each other. Sometimes the ball stuck a little bit but for the most part I thought everyone was doing their part.
"It was just a good test to see where we are at this point. I think going forward we can tighten our mistakes and we will be a lot better."
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The options to help with post defense remain largely unproven.
Freshman forward Daimion Collins tallied more fouls (three) than rebounds (two) in the game. He blocked just one shot – an athletic closeout on a 3-point shooter – and did not tally a steal.
Freshman forward Bryce Hopkins, who was most known for his physical style of play as a recruit, played primarily on the wing against Kentucky Wesleyan and failed to carry over his preseason hype into the exhibition opener.
Sophomore forward Lance Ware served as Tshiebwe's primary backup but totaled just four points and two rebounds in 16 minutes.
Junior forward Jacob Toppin, who Calipari frequently lauded for his defensive work a year ago, remains out with a shoulder injury. Calipari expressed doubt that Toppin or junior guard C.J. Fredrick (leg) will be ready for the Nov. 9 season opener against Duke.
“We’ve just got to work on it in practice,” Brooks said. “That’s also just a level of toughness that comes with it. … I feel like it got to a point where we almost started to play down a little bit and not play to our level, against ourselves. They made some shots inside.”
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Kentucky Wesleyan forward JoMel Boyd totaled 29 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He scored 17 of those points in the second half, hitting 8 of 10 shots after intermission. Boyd added eight rebounds.
After his stellar showing in Rupp Arena, the 6-foot-6, 207-pound Boyd will feel good about his chances of starring in NCAA Division II this season, but Kentucky players could be equally worried about what the interior defense will look like against even better opponents, starting with Duke.
The good news is Calipari said Kentucky has devoted little practice time to interior defense so far. Progress will be made in the coming weeks, especially from players like Collins and Hopkins as they make the jump from a pandemic-altered high school senior season to college basketball.
“That’s something we’ve got to clean up,” Wheeler said. “I think that goes back to us having dogs, guys doing it consistently throughout the game no matter what the score is because at the end of the day we played a really good team, but that isn’t an SEC team. That isn’t going to be a Final Four team. Those are the goals we have: to win the SEC, we want to play for a national championship. On the defensive side, it starts there.”