By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
The Kentucky Wildcats Basketball team defeated the Transylvania Pioneers – a Division III member of the Heartland Conference – in their first exhibition game of the 2018 season by a score of 94-66 in Rupp Arena on Friday night.
Since the purpose of the two exhibition games for Division I teams to start the season is to find out what areas of play need work and what areas seem to be in good shape let’s follow that same thought process and talk about what we saw that worked for UK Friday night and what we saw that didn’t.
What We Saw
It’s going to be hard to keep Ashton Hagans off the floor this season. His defense is suffocating and infectious. He brings tremendous energy to the game and he seems to help pick up the intensity of every other Kentucky player on the floor.
We saw that Reid Travis will be a rebounding machine this season and will also be a great steadying influence on the inside for UK. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him average a double-double for the season. It’s easy to see when he is not on the floor that the team struggles to stay in a consistent rhythm on offense.
We also saw that Keldon Johnson will be a human highlight reel. He will probably be the most athletic player
on the floor for either team in most games this year. His game is reminiscent of a smaller Alex Poythress. He has a lot of athleticism but needs to really get a better understanding of how to play within an organized half-court offense and what his role is on this team.
EJ Montgomery will continue to become a more critical piece of the offense as the season goes along. He is extremely smooth with the ball and has the ability to go to the basket and shoot a little jump hook shot or spot up and shoot a very accurate mid-range jump shot.
Tyler Herro’s defense is better than advertised. Even though he is not the quickest player on the floor he understands body placement and proper foot movement and he stays on balance by not overplaying his man.
As the season progresses and the UK players learn how to play better team defense Herro could really help on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor if he continues to progress with his defensive game.
We saw that Kentucky’s press could be a devastating weapon against a lot of teams this year. The Wildcats have so much length and athleticism that some teams will have a difficult time moving the ball up the floor and if an opponent does beat the press Kentucky has a rim protector in Nick Richards to help erase any mistakes.
This year’s team is light years ahead of last year’s team in basketball knowledge. Reid Travis, Quade Green, PJ Washington and Nick Richards all looked very comfortable in a half-court offense and seemed to know where to be in the offense and how to move without the ball.
It’s obvious why Reid Travis was an All Pac12 player the last two seasons. He is so good at knowing where the ball will come off the basket and then holding his position to go up and get the rebound with two hands. Although he is not a great leaper he knows how to use his body to shield off the defender and finish the shot at the rim.
Finally we saw that UK may not play a better three point shooting team all year than the Transylvania Pioneers. They were very good at playing an inside-out offense with excellent ball movement – and they hit their outside shots when UK failed to close out on the shooter.
What we didn’t see
We didn’t see good team defense by Kentucky. Too many times the Transylvania players easily beat a UK player off the dribble for a behind the head layup or a kick out pass to the open man on the three point line. It seemed like too many Kentucky players were reaching instead of moving their feet and they were frequently out of position on defense.
We also didn’t see great three point shooting from a Kentucky team that should be a good shooting team this year. It looked like early in the game UK intended to impose it’s will on Transylvania and were fairly successful at scoring inside. As the game wore on Transylvania tried to double down on the Kentucky post players which opened up shots for UK on the three point line that they couldn’t convert. As the season goes on those shots will fall.
We didn’t see consistency of effort and focus from one half to the other from the Kentucky players. It looked like in the middle part of the second half some guys starting playing for themselves instead of the team.
Overall it was a good exhibition opener for UK because it provided John Calipari with a multitude of teaching points for his practices next week. This game will help the players see just how much work they need to do before they are ready to compete against Duke in the season opener in the Champion’s Classic on November 6th.