LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari preached patience, or rather pleaded for it, and looked alternately worried and annoyed after most of Kentucky basketball’s first five games this season. After the last two, he is teetering not he edge of hopeful.
The eighth-ranked Wildcats followed a 19-point win over Fort Wayne with a 107-73 shellacking of Illinois-Chigao on Sunday night. Against the Flames, they shot 67 percent, had six players score in double figures and for the first time played a brand of offense that multiple people described afterward as “crisp.”
UIC coach Steve McClain cannot be blamed for being surprised by that.
“What I hadn’t seen on film that I saw today: everything they did was very sharp, crisp offensively. It created problems for us all over the place,” he said. “We came in thinking we could play zone. Every time we went zone, they moved the ball and got a shot.”
All six of the Cats’ available freshmen scored in double figures and four of them tied or set new career highs: Kevin Knox (25), Hamidou Diallo (19), PJ Washington (17) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (14).
“That’s by far the best we’ve played,” Calipari said. “We were efficient, we passed the ball, we made shots. We took one ad shot [the entire game]. Kevin Knox took one in the first half, just like a step-back with him and another guy on him. Short of that, I don’t think we took a bad shot.”
That’s a far cry from some of the clunky offensive performances early this season. And solid progress for a young team that hasn’t gotten much in-season practice time. Kentucky (6-1) just finished a starting stretch of seven games in 16 days.
Now they don’t play again until Saturday’s home game against Harvard — Calipari is even giving players Monday and Tuesday completely off — and will have a total of five games in the next 33 days.
“I feel like we’re getting better, we’re trending the right way, and now we’ve got to sustain,” the coach said. With increasing practice time, “we can try to get better and I can try to focus on some areas that I know we’ve got to get better.”
That Diallo made 8 of 11 shots and didn’t attempt a 3-pointer, choosing instead to drive and attack as Calipari has been asking, is a big development. As is the fact Knox made 9 of 9 shots inside the arc playing much the same way.
Perhaps bigger still: Washington shaking off his early season slump and finally playing like the McDonald’s All-American power forward that he is with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. He sank 6 of 7 shots and 5 of 7 free throws.
“We’re making really great progress. I think each game we just keep getting better and better, and like Cal said, we’re starting to click now,” Knox said. “This week of practice has been really good for us. We came in sharp, running the plays, listening to Cal, no mess-ups, no nothing. We were really focused and that’s something Cal told us today after shootaround, that we had a really good week of practice and we were ready.”
Now the Wildcats have two more tuneups — Harvard on Saturday and Monmouth on Dec. 9 — before a series of serious tests: Virginia Tech, UCLA and Louisville. And then the start of conference play.
Diallo was asked Sunday whether the dismantling of UIC is Kentucky at its best.
“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “There’s much more we can do.”