Tyler Ulis

(AP Photo/James Crisp)
Associated Press

No. 5 Kentucky pulls away thanks to improved second-half execution

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A Kodi Justice three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half capped a mediocre 20 minutes for No. 5 Kentucky. While they did hold a one-point lead at that point, the Wildcats looked nothing like one of the nation’s top teams. Whatever John Calipari and his staff said to the players in the locker room got through to the players, as the Wildcats produced a far better half of basketball on their way to the 72-58 victory in Lexington.

And moving forward, the key for Kentucky will be putting together quality performances for a full forty minutes as opposed to doing so in fits and spurts.

A 19-5 second half run put the game out of reach for the visiting Sun Devils, who grabbed nearly half of their available offensive rebound opportunities (eight offensive rebounds to nine defensive rebounds for Kentucky) in the first half. Arizona State did grab seven offensive rebounds in the second half, but thanks to Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress (four defensive rebounds each) the Wildcats did a better job of limiting the visitors to one shot.

Those defensive rebounds helped the Wildcats establish a better flow on the offensive end, with Kentucky scoring 20 of their 40 second-half points in the paint and shooting 57.7 percent from the field.

Poythress (ten points, six rebounds) left the game in the first half with a hyperextended right knee (not the one he injured last season) after playing some of his best basketball of the season, and with Skal Labissiere once again ineffective (zero points, zero rebounds) the senior’s absence was felt. Since the start of the season Calipari’s been on Poythress to be more athletic on the court, because he has the potential to change the equation offensively for the Wildcats.

Lee, who’s been effective this season, finished Saturday’s game with 14 points and seven rebounds and has been an important piece for the Wildcats in the front court. But with the strides Labissiere still needs to make being greater than many anticipated before the season began, Poythress’ aggressiveness is an important factor for Kentucky moving forward. They missed him when he wasn’t on the court, with Arizona State hitting the offensive glass, and that changed for the better when he returned.

Another positive in the second half for Kentucky was their perimeter shooting, as they made five of their ten attempts from three after shooting 1-for-11 in the first half. Arizona State used a zone at times, and unlike the first half in which Kentucky settled offensively they were more disciplined in finding quality looks. The Wildcats have capable shooters in Tyler Ulis (12 points, six assists), Jamal Murray (17 points) and Isaiah Briscoe, but they don’t have a consistent knockdown guy.

That makes the quality of shots they get that much more important, and in the second half thanks to their improved execution the Wildcats averaged 1.14 points per possession (0.87 first half).

Given the combination of new pieces and guys who were supplementary options a season ago stepping into primary roles, this is going to be a work in progress. Kentucky took some positive steps in their half-court offense in the second half Saturday, which allowed them to pull away from Arizona State. And as they continue to work on that aspect of their game, the Wildcats need to figure out how to get their prized freshman big man going.

Hyperextended elbow could sideline Kentucky’s Ulis Monday night

Tyler Ulis
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In the midst of No. 1 Kentucky’s comfortable win over USF on Friday, sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis went down with a hyperextended right elbow. Kentucky does have two other players capable of running the point in freshmen Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe, but there’s no denying the importance of Ulis to this team.

The question now is whether or not Ulis will be available when the Wildcats host Illinois State Monday night, and there has yet to be a definitive answer. Ulis didn’t practice Sunday, and should he miss Monday’s game Kentucky loses a player who has provided (among many things) consistency at the point.

“And without Tyler now, you have to understand the last six minutes of that half and what we did the first five or six minutes of that second half, that was without Tyler. We were really good,” Calipari said Sunday. “It’s just they couldn’t sustain it. That’s what Tyler does. Tyler just keeps coming and he does not stop and he’s not going to make mistakes to let another team get back in the game. That’s the difference. That’s the experience.”

The absence of Ulis would give Murray and Briscoe more time with the ball in their hands running the point, and they’d have to do so against an Illinois State team that gave No. 2 Maryland all it wanted in Cancun earlier this week.

While Friday’s game was well in hand when Ulis was injured, the Wildcats and Bulls played to a stalemate in the final 20 minutes. Doing so against an Illinois State team expected to be a factor in the Missouri Valley Conference would be dangerous.

Following Monday’s game, Kentucky makes the trip out west to take on UCLA Thursday night.

Kentucky’s Alex Poythress hopes to be cleared by the end of August

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As John Calipari told Heather Cox of ESPN on Thursday night at the 2015 NBA Draft in Brooklyn, Kentucky’s 2014-15 season officially ended that night.

As the focus shifts to another talented team in Lexington, one of the questions heading into next season is the status of senior forward Alex Poythress. The 6-foot-8 Poythress started the first eight games of the season, but was sidelined for the remainder of the year after tearing the ACL in his left knee during a mid-December practice.

Steve Jones of the Courier-Journal received an update from Poythress’ progress on Friday afternoon at Rajon Rondo’s annual Camp Rondo.

On his health and if he’ll be 100 percent by the start of the season

Yeah, close. They’re trying to say I’ll probably be cleared by the end of August probably, so I’ll just keep on doing my rehab, keep on doing what I need to do and trying to get healthy and trying to get back out there.

On how much he’s able to do right now

I’m doing all the lifting and conditioning with the team. I’m not playing with them, but I am running on the track with them, doing footwork drills with them.

Poythress averaged 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game in his shortened junior season.

This has been an eventful week for the Kentucky program. On Wednesday evening, top-15 recruit Jamal Murray committed to Kentucky, a huge score for a program that saw seven players declare for the draft less than three months earlier. Speaking of the NBA Draft, four Wildcats were selected within the first 13 picks — six in all — during Thursday’s draft.

Poythress, Tyler Ulis and Marcus Lee will be joined by the incoming class of Murray, Isaiah Briscoe, Charles Matthews and Skal Labissiere, the top-rated player in the Class of 2015, according to Rivals. The Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in College Basketball Talk‘s Way-Too-Early Preseason Rankings.