Kentucky Athletics

Five thoughts on Kentucky after their third straight win in the Bahamas

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Kentucky Athletics

Kentucky has now played three games in the Bahamas, winning all three in impressive fashion. I’ve watched all three games. Here are five takeaways from those three games:

1. I did not see this coming: I knew Kentucky was going to be good this season. Everyone with a pulse knew that Kentucky was going to be good this season. There’s a reason they are going to be the preseason No. 1 team in any poll worth paying attention to. But after just 10 practices this summer, and with two potential starters sitting out with injuries, I did not expect to see these Wildcats steamroll their way through the first three games the way that they have. The Wildcats have now won their three games — two against Puerto Rico and one against French club Chalon-Reims — by an average of 28 points, demoralizing their opponents in the second half.

Now keep in mind, while these are professional basketball players, they don’t have all that much to play for. This isn’t Puerto Rico’s A-squad. Chalon-Reims has had even less time to prepare than Kentucky. Those players have their livelihood on the line if they hurt themselves in a game like this; Kentucky’s kids are competing to earn playing time this season. That’s an important distinction when it comes to effort, especially in the second half of these games.

But still: I’ve been impressed.

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2. The key sentence in Part 1: “Competing to earn playing time this season”: The single biggest issue that John Calipari is going to face this season is from a playing time perspective. He doesn’t really have a small forward on this roster; he essentially has four guards, three power forward and three centers, plus Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis. That’s a lot of talent, but it’s also a lot of people to keep happy without a lot of minutes available to give them. Will Marcus Lee be happy if he gets relegated to sitting the bench again this season? How will Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson react if Karl Towns comes in and steals their minutes at center? If Trey Lyles and Lee out play Alex Poythress, will the junior be OK with seeing his minutes cut?

Who knows. At this point, we don’t know how healthy Cauley-Stein and Lyles are, let alone what the breakdown of front court minutes will look like. And Cal has proven that he is adept at getting his players to buy into a role and put the team first when it comes to playing time. This season will be his toughest challenge yet.

3. Alex Poythress finally playing with energy: For the past two seasons, Calipari has been trying to get Poythress — a 6-foot-7 forward with all the physical tools that you could ask for — to consistently play with energy and aggression. In the three games in the Bahamas, Poythress has done just that. He’s crashing the offensive glass, he’s getting out and running in transition, he’s making plays defensively. If he continues to do that, he becomes a completely different player for the Wildcats. And while he hasn’t quite added those perimeter skills that everyone was looking for out of him, it’s important to remember that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wasn’t exactly the most-skilled perimeter player when he donned a Kentucky uniform. With the versatility of Lyles and Towns, Kentucky should be able to get by with Poythress at the three … assuming he consistently brings that junkyard dog mentality.

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4. Kentucky will be at their best with Tyler Ulis on the floor: Andrew Harrison has gotten better at the point guard spot. Aaron Harrison has gotten better, too, and I think it’s fair to say that both of them are better players, in a vacuum, than Ulis is at this point. But what Ulis brings to the table will make this Kentucky team that much better. For starters, he is a nightmare on the defensive end of the floor, one of those tough, quick little pests that always cause trouble for opposing ball-handlers. He’s also a pure point guard offensively, a kid that can read pick-and-rolls and can run offensive sets equally well. He doesn’t need to “get his”. He doesn’t need to score. He’s satisfied setting the table for his teammates, which is something that needs to happen with the talent Kentucky has on the floor.

Don’t be surprised if Calipari eventually favors a lineup that features three guards, even if that means that Ulis will be on the floor at the same time as both of the Harrisons.

5. Karl Towns is going to be Kentucky’s best freshman, if not their best player: He’s just so talented. He can score in the post. He can hit threes. He’s a very good passer. He just has a terrific feel for the game offensively. On the defensive end there are some question marks, but if he plays as a center and is asked to, essentially, defend the rim and rebound the ball, he should be more than adequate on that end of the floor.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.

VIDEO: New Mexico loses game on blown call by officials

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Nothing like a nice, controversial finish to get the blood flowing.

New Mexico was on the receiving end of a rule misinterpretation on Saturday afternoon, and that interpretation likely cost the Lobos a win over San Diego State and, arguably, a shot at the MWC regular season title.

Here’s the situation: New Mexico is up by three with 12 seconds left and the ball under their own basket. Their allowed to run the baseline, so Craig Neal calls a play where the inbounder throws the ball to a player running out of bounds.

Totally league as long as the player establishes out of bounds before touching the ball. The referee rules that he doesn’t.

Here’s the video:

The problem?

According to the rules, Xavier Adams — the player receiving the pass from Cullen Neal — only needed one foot on the floor out of bounds in order to establish himself as an inbounder that was able to catch that ball. He got one foot down (see the picture above), but the referees appeared to rule that he needed to have both feet down.

That was incorrect, according to the Mountain West office.

“While this was a very close judgment call made at full speed, it has been determined after careful review of slow-motion video replays the call was in fact incorrect,” the league said in a release. “The New Mexico player did get one foot down (two feet are not required) out-of-bounds before receiving the ball, thus establishing his location in accordance NCAA Basketball Playing Rules 4.23.1.a and 7.1.1.  By rule, the officials were not permitted to go to the monitor during the game to review this play.”

And here’s the kicker: When SDSU got the ball back, they hit a three to send the game into overtime, where the Aztecs won. But if New Mexico had won this game, they’d be sitting at 8-2 in MWC play, one game behind SDSU in the loss column with a return game against them in The Pit.

Instead, they’re now three games back with seven to play, meaning that the race is effectively over.

It’s tough to blame the referees here — it was a bang-bang call that is only clear in slow-motion replay — but man, that’s a big call to miss.