LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky basketball fans got their first real look at the 2017-18 Wildcats during the Blue-White scrimmage Friday night at Rupp Arena. Coach John Calipari’s assessment of a squad with zero juniors or seniors?
“I like this team, but whew,” he said. “We’ve got a ways to go. Let me just say that. You know, since Eric [Lindsey, UK’s sports information director] doesn’t coach the team, he said, ‘Oh, it’s early.’ Yeah, so you’re over there eating popcorn and I’m dying here. I’ve got a noose around my neck and he’s telling me, ‘Oh, it’s early. We’ll be fine.’ ”
To be fair, there were several positive takeaways from Friday night’s scrimmage. A rundown of the good and bad here:
Too many cramps
Point guard Quade Green, shooting guard Hamidou Diallo, power forward P.J. Washington and center Nick Richards were among the players who needed treatment for cramps. Green left the court early in the second half and did not return.
“He’s in the cold tub right now because he’s cramping in his leg and then his arm and his little finger,” Calipari joked. “What’s that tell you? Here’s what we have: a team full of guys that can play 20 minutes.”
Washington, who conducted postgame interviews with bags of ice on both knees and a chocolate chip cookie in hand, knows his coach wasn’t happy.
“We need to get in a lot better shape,” Washington said.
Richards, a 7-foot freshman with a 7-5 wingspan, came to Kentucky with a reputation as a rim protector and did not disappoint Friday night. He finished with 10 points, 13 rebounds and 8 blocked shots. He also walloped multiple teammates in the head, including Wenyen Gabriel, from whom he drew blood.
“Cal and the other assistant coaches told me, ‘Do whatever you’ve got to do to get rebounds and blocks.’ Whatever happens, happens,” said Richards, who would prefer not to hurt his own teammates but won’t be as kind to opponents. “Like, say, Kansas: If somebody gets in the way, I’m not going to worry about it.”
Washington and fellow forward Kevin Knox believe the big man is toughening up the Cats.
“Nick is really wild. I mean, he doesn’t even try to be wild. He just hits everybody,” Washington said. “You can’t even run from it — it’s bound to happen — so you’ve just got to embrace it and get through it.”
But Richards can tell he’s already become an intimidating force.
“They second-guess themselves,” he said, “when they try to come in the paint.”
Cal pushing Washington, Knox
The two available 5-star freshman forwards, Washington and Knox, both played well Friday. Washington went for 21 points (9 of 12 shooting), 5 rebounds and 3 assists in 33 minutes, while Knox had a scrimmage-high 22 points (9 of 14 shooting) to go with 7 rebounds and 2 steals in 40 minutes.
As Calipari is inclined to do with talented young players, he focused on their room to improve.
“We need [Knox] to be more assertive, because he kind of does what Malik [Monk] would do: If I didn’t call something for him, sometimes he would just be out there and go five minutes and not shoot it,” Calipari said. “All I keep saying [to Washington] is more motor, more motor. When he gets to that, if there’s guys better than him, I gotta see it.”
Calipari noted that the three players who tied for preseason SEC Player of the Year — Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., Georgia’s Yante Maten and Texas A&M’s Robert Williams — all play Washington’s position.
“You’re going to play all three of them,” Calipari told him. “Let’s see who is better. You’ve got a chance to prove it.”
Threes a breeze?
The biggest concern about this team (other than youth) is outside shooting. That didn’t seem to be a huge problem Friday night, when the Wildcats sank 13 of 29 3-pointers — including a pair by the coach’s son, walk-on Brad Calipari.
Of the expected major contributors, Knox, Green, Gabriel and Diallo combined to sink 7 of 16.
“We’re not Steph Curry,” John Calipari said, “but I’ve had way worse shooting teams than this and we’ve done OK.”
Added Knox, who is 6-foot-9 and swished one 3-pointer and multiple long jump shots: “People are saying we have no shooters, but that’s completely false. People are basing that off high school and basing that off old stats, but people don’t know how we’re really working on that in the gym.”
Who is the point guard?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who Calipari said this week is challenging Green for the starting point guard spot, finished with 14 points (6 of 9 shooting), 8 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. Green must’ve heard that his job is in jeopardy, though, because he played quite well before leaving with cramps.
Green went for 18 points — including three made 3-pointers — 7 assists and 4 rebounds in 24 minutes.
“I’m telling Quade, ‘Do not hold the ball. Get rid of it,’ ” Calipari said. “I thought Shai had two or three shots he should have taken. There were a couple that we need to pass it one more and the guys tried to drive it.”
Jarred Vanderbilt update
Calipari caused a stir this week by telling ESPN on Wednesday that Vanderbilt, the 5-star freshman forward who’s been out with a foot injury, could miss the entire season if he isn’t ready to return in January as scheduled.
“I have no update yet,” the coach said Friday night. “Doc will probably — this is probably the week they’re going to look at him and see how he does.”
Vanderbilt, who still hasn’t had surgery and might not, sat on the bench during the scrimmage wearing a protective boot on that left foot.