LEXINGTON, Ky. — Earlier this month, Kentucky basketball took a 2,000-mile field trip to Spokane, Washington. It did not turn out well. This week, UK travels 4,000 miles for another educational opportunity, this time in the original UK, i.e. London, England. The Cats need this trip to be a success.
After all, a team only gets so many shots at beating a big shot. John Calipari’s club air-balled its first two, gift-wrapping a double-overtime win for Michigan State in the Champions Classic before that jarring 16-point loss at Gonzaga. Sunday brings royal opportunity No. 3. Michigan is the opponent. London’s O2 Arena is the setting. ABC has the 1 p.m. coverage. That’s WTVQ locally.
Before packing bags for Britain, the Cats played Bellarmine in a Tuesday night tune-up. Kentucky won, 60-41. The final score told only half the story. At intermission, the teams were tied at 21. (This was basketball, not football.) That’s the fewest first-half points by a Kentucky team at Rupp Arena since Tubby Smith’s Cats trailed Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt 23-20 on Jan. 10, 2006. Vandy won, 57-52. Luckily, 16 years later, Cal’s Cats did not suffer a similar fate.
The second half, UK finally found something close to offensive flow. Having spent its weekend playing two games in California — losses at Loyola Marymount and UCLA — Bellarmine hit the wall. A 23-3 Kentucky spurt occurred. A 19-point win was recorded. The Cats showed the discipline required on defense against Bellarmine’s passing/cutting/patient style of play, but once again UK looked spotty on offense.
Kentucky shot just 41.5 percent from the floor. It was 7 of 22 from 3-point range. And it was sloppy at the outset, turning the ball over seven times before it had scored eight points. By night’s end, Antonio Reeves finished with 18 points. Jacob Toppin hit his aggressive button in the second half. CJ Fredrick made three triples. Sahvir Wheeler dished six assists, but also committed four turnovers. Oscar Tshiebwe collected 12 rebounds.
Over in England, Sunday’s lowdown should happen down low — Oscar vs. Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson. The Wolverines’ 7-foot-1 junior center is averaging 19.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game. Still working his way back from knee surgery, Tshiebwe is averaging 14.4 points and 13.4 rebounds, a regression from last year’s award-winning 17.4 and 15.1 numbers. Dickinson is shooting 58.7 percent from the floor. Oscar is shooting 56.4.
Much like Kentucky, Michigan is an early enigma. Or disappointment, take your pick. Ranked 22nd in the preseason, the Wolverines are now 5-2 and unranked. They were scorched by Arizona State, 87-62, in New York on Nov. 18. They needed overtime to beat Ohio, 70-66. Then Tuesday night, Juwan Howard’s club nearly took down No. 3-ranked and visiting Virginia before falling, 70-68, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Up 45-34 at the half, Michigan was outscored 36-23 in the second half.
Despite all that, “We better not play how we started this game,” Calipari warned Tuesday. “They’re well-coached and they’re a good team, so it will be a hard game.”
(This continues Calipari’s enduring streak of saying every game will be a “hard game.”)
You can tell Cal leads the search party for pre-conference answers. His lineups are all over the board, as if drawn from a hat. He’s in lab-coat mode, still experimenting. Example: The coach says he needs to find more minutes for freshman Chris Livingston, but can’t decide which player should play less. With 32 seconds left Tuesday, and Kentucky leading by 17 points, Cal still had his regulars on the floor.
As for the ultimate search, Kentucky just needs a win. A marquee win. A Power Five win. A win that closes the early gap in its resume. An oh-yeah-that’s-Kentucky win. The program needs it. The coach needs it. The fan base really needs it. BBN is still suffering from Post Traumatic Saint Peter’s Stress Syndrome. It needs a reason to believe. Sunday, it needs to see Kentucky beat Michigan.