PORTLAND - The Kentucky Wildcats' visit to the Rose Garden Friday night had all the makings of a trap game. The West Coast stopover is neatly nestled in the Wildcats' schedule between their season opener, an 88-65 win over East Tennessee State, and next week's marquee matchups in the Maui Classic.
Compared to the competition and atmosphere in Hawaii, the Portland Pilots would have been easy to overlook. Yet Portland, coming off a 21-11 season, is talented enough to make Kentucky pay for a lackadaisical attitude. KenPom.com made the Wildcats favorites by just eight points, while our John Gasaway highlighted this game as a possible early season upset.
John Calipari was always going to insist that his team focus on the game ahead, an effort that surely wasn't hurt by some tame chalkboard material. Pilots guard Jared Stohl said in a video previewing the game on the Portland Facebook page that "We're going to need you guys [fans] when we beat Kentucky," a statement that got plenty of play in the Bluegrass State.
Whatever the explanation, the Wildcats came out with early energy and maintained it throughout the game, especially at the defensive end. Kentucky held the Pilots scoreless for nearly seven minutes and allowed just 30.5 percent shooting overall in a 79-48 victory that was never seriously in doubt.
Stohl's outside shooting, not his guarantees, got Calipari's attention. The senior guard shot 47.8 percent from three-point range a year ago and was 12-of-21 in Portland's 3-0 start to this season. The Wildcats kept Stohl from getting almost any airspace, thanks largely to the defensive effort of DeAndre Liggins. The 6'6" junior fought through continuous screens and used his size advantage to smother the 6'2" Stohl.
Pilots coach Eric Reveno estimated that Stohl got two or three "good" looks beyond the arc. He made just one of his seven attempts. With Stohl neutralized, Portland had a difficult time creating offense. Those problems were exacerbated by an inability to finish the looks in the paint the team did get, primarily during the first half. Reveno pointed out that on film, Kentucky probably would deserve credit for doing enough defensively to alter those attempts. Even when a Wildcat wasn't actually there, the team's length may have forced the Pilots out of their comfort zone. As it was, Kentucky blocked nine shots, including four by wing Darius Miller.
Calipari is one of the NCAA's most underrated defensive coaches. While his recruiting ability ensures he has no shortage of talent at the offensive end, his stars also buy into his system. This young group, which features three freshmen among the top six in the rotation, seems to be getting there ahead of schedule. There were some lapses at times, and more talented teams will make the Wildcats pay where Portland was unable to do so, but the defensive performance was impressive for game two of the season. What Kentucky lacks in sheer size it makes up for with length across the board and big guards.
At the other end of the floor, the Wildcats are even more dependent on freshmen. To similar hype, guard Brandon Knight has stepped into the spot filled previously by Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall. Knight was as advertised in person. His quickness in the open floor and ability to play in traffic are breathtaking. Knight has an advantage over his predecessors in that he is a threat from the NCAA three-point line, having made seven triples thus far in 12 attempts. The question mark remains whether Knight's ability to set up his teammates is up to par for the Dribble-Drive Motion offense. That was unanswered Friday, when Knight had just one assist and largely drove to score.
The game was a homecoming for Terrence Jones, who got the benefit of a trip back to his native Portland during what is likely to be his only collegiate season. Calipari said after the game that Jones had the best homecoming of any player he'd ever seen, based on his low standards for such performances. Jones was quiet during the first half, when opposing number Luke Sikma was able to contain him with solid, physical defense, but he finished with 12 points, five boards and three assists.
Calipari was animated on the topic of Jones' development, saying he does not want the freshman to settle for being good when he could be great--"the best." Friday provided examples of the coach's concerns. Jones shot just 5-of-14 from the field. However, there were also glimpses of Jones' talent. When committed, he can be a force at the defensive end and a unique offensive talent with his ability to handle, distribute and shoot from the perimeter. Jones sounded the perfect note after the game, saying that Calipari's determination to make him better was precisely why he chose to go to Kentucky.
While the freshmen will get most of the headlines this season, it was Miller who stole the show for the Wildcats at the Rose Garden with his complete stat line. Miller was everywhere at both ends of the floor, stuffing the stat sheet with five rebounds, four assists and five steals in addition to his four blocks. Miller was equally impressive as a scorer, knocking down six of his seven shots (three from beyond the arc) and scoring 15 points.
As for the Pilots, it was tough to get a read of them against such a high level of competition. Point guard Eric Waterford, stepping into the starting lineup in pace of the graduated T.J. Campbell, had a decent game with 12 points. The other standout was Sikma, who battled valiantly against Kentucky's bigger front line and ripped down 10 of his 12 rebounds in the first half. Sikma is a mistake-free hustle player with some skill (he's an excellent passer from the post) who was one of the nation's 10 best defensive rebounders a year ago.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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