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.