The weather outside was frightful. Not. On a day when the thermometer topped out at 70 degrees in Lexington (people headed to the game in shorts on Dec. 12), it figured to be just as hot inside when Arizona State came calling Saturday afternoon.
Although they were facing the Wildcats with a 60-1 non-conference record at home under Coach Cal, the Bobby Hurley-led Arizona State Sun Devils were hoping their recent success could continue.
Winners of three in a row and fresh off a 13-point victory against No. 18 Texas A & M, the Sun Devils came to Kentucky hoping to build on their momentum. ASU has been outrebounding opponents by eight per game and were expected to give UK a battle inside, where the Cats are trying to follow Cal’s directive to be more aggressive.
With Dick Vitale on hand to serve as color analyst for the ESPN broadcast, the arena quickly filled with hot air. A warm Rupp Arena got even hotter as the Sun Devils exhibited the same grittiness and determination as Hurley had shown “back in the day” as a Duke Blue Devil.
With everything so hot, how could be UK be so cold? Outrebounded 22-14, the Cats also struggled from the field: 31 percent overall and only 9.1 percent from the 3-point line. (That’s a growing cause of concern for Big Blue Nation, but more about that later).
Luckily another cause of concern for the Cats, free throw shooting, was no problem in the first half (13-16). The good foul shooting combined with forcing 11 turnovers and blocking 3 shots allowed the Cats to lead the Sun Devils at the half 32-31.
The second half saw Kentucky turn the tables on the glass outrebounding ASU by the same margin, 22-16. With good ball movement the Wildcats made several open 3-pointers (5-10). Maybe that can be the springboard to give them the confidence to start knocking down the 3s they will need to become the team Cat fans have Christmas dreams of.
Several questions remain for UK before they begin conference play on Jan 2: Will foul shooting, especially for Marcus Lee and Isaiah Briscoe, become solid enough to win close games? Both players are needed on the floor at the end of games, but they were a combined two for seven against ASU.
Does Kentucky have enough depth to withstand the injuries that occur during most seasons? Alex Poythress had to leave the game in the first half and if he had not been able to return, it is doubtful Kentucky would have won the game. New Zealander Tai Wynyard, 6-10, 263 pounds, is set to join the team this week. It is doubtful he will play immediately but could give the Cats some added depth going forward.
Random notes and sights from Rupp Arena:
This close to Christmas there were several Santa look-alikes in the stands.
Derek Willis fashion statement Part 2: Willis came out with a buzz cut to replace his Jack Frost look from the previous game. It may have helped his shooting; he went three of four (one of two beyond the arc).
Dis Donc Ou est Skal?: Labissiere went scoreless for the game, fouled out, got no rebounds and spent much of the afternoon being “instructed” by Coach Cal.
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No one has ever accused Coach Cal of being Scrooge. If anyone knows how to keep basketball and keep it well, it is he. But Wednesday night several spirits of Wildcat teams past came in to try and bedevil his current team.
EKU came to Lexington with a new coach, Don McHale. He is a UK alum and served as a student manager under the legendary Bill Keightly during the Tubby Smith era.
After school he went to work with Rick Pitino at Louisville and has adopted the style Rick used at UK during the Pitino “Bombinos” seasons. We have all seen that style: it includes heavy reliance on 3-point shooting for offense and full court pressure to try and speed up the game and create turnovers on defense.
New EKU athletic director, Steve Lochumueller (who seems intent on making the Colonels relevant on the national level), will be remembered by those of a certain age as one of the “Super Kittens” from Joe B. Hall’s first season as UK coach.
Could the current maroon-clad visitors from Richmond channel those past spirits and scare Kentucky into a second straight loss?
Not Wednesday night.
After a stellar first half which saw Kentucky shoot 60.6 percent and outrebound EKU 23-10 (UK led by a score of 50-36), the Cats eventually pulled away in the second half and had their largest lead at the end of the game. Final score UK 88 – EKU 67.
In a hard-fought game, Alex Poythress rose to the challenge with 21 points and 13 rebounds. Marcus Lee returned to action and had 11 points and five blocked shots to go along with eight points in 25 minutes of action.
Ghost of Rupp Arena present: the present turned out to be pretty good for the Wildcats with a victory over Eastern to take much of the sting out of the loss to UCLA. With Lee back, Poythress in “beast” mode, and Skal Labissiere playing much more aggressively, the Cats frontcourt looked much better.
The Kentucky backcourt continues to play well. The trio of Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray continue to impress and will only improve as the two freshmen mature. Backup Charles Matthews is looking more comfortable. The four guards combined for 42 points, 19 rebounds and 13 assists.
Ghost of Rupp Arena future: Long after the lights were dimmed and the crowd had departed, Coach Cal could be seen at center court where beside him a mysterious figure pointed to the rafters to the space where banner number 9 would hang. It was empty.
“Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they the shadows of the things that may be, only?” (Was that Coach Cal that said that or was Charles Dickens somehow involved in UK basketball?) Either way the mysterious figure said nothing.
As “A Christmas Carol” taught us, people can change. Could another championship banner be hung in the rafters this spring? Kentucky has the backcourt depth to go deep into the tournament. How far they are able to go will depend on how quickly Labissiere can develop and how consistent veterans Lee and Poythress can become.
Random sights and notes from Rupp Arena:
• Fashion statement 1: Derek Willis came out with silver highlights in his hair, looking much like Martin Short in “Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.” Didn’t seem to help his shooting, 0 for 2 from 3-point land.
• Fashion statement 2: Both Alex Poythress and Charles Matthews choose to wear full length leggings under their shorts, Poythress chose black, Matthews white.
• Fashion statement 3: Increased security at admission gates had those with coats or bags waiting a little longer to be checked in: many seats were empty at tipoff but filled up as the game went on.