Best thing about the UK team you are watching in the Bahamas is not the obvious thing

·5 min read
Chet White/UK Athletics

After two straight years yielded the worst Kentucky basketball season in modern times and the worst UK NCAA Tournament loss in any times, the Big Blue Nation deserves some feel-good Bahamian beat downs on UK’s four-game summer exhibition tour.

Backers of the Blue have every reason to be excited about the improvement of Daimion Collins; the outside shooting of Antonio Reeves; the confident comportment of Jacob Toppin; and the evident promise of freshmen Chris Livingston, Adou Thiero and Cason Wallace.

So enjoy the kind of decimation the Wildcats applied to the Dominican Republic National Select Team, 108-56, in the exhibition opener Wednesday night. It seems likely the Cats will pin similar beatings on their three remaining exhibition foes (which started with Tec de Monterrey, a Mexican college team, Thursday) for you to relish, too.

As a caveat, it would likely be wise to hold on to one note of caution. The last time Kentucky took an exhibition tour of the Bahamas, before the 2018-19 season, UK won its four games by margins of 24, 23, 36 and 33 points. The Cats then opened their regular season with a 118-84 loss to Duke.

With that disclaimer, I do think a quality Kentucky has on display this week in the Baha Mar resort convention center bodes well for UK’s fortunes in the next March Madness.

Defensive length is back for the Cats.

In Wednesday’s mauling of the overmatched Dominican Selects, Kentucky pilfered the basketball 13 times and swatted 10 shots. After a year’s hiatus, the adjectives that have been synonymous with John Calipari-era UK basketball rosters, long and athletic, again apply to the 2022-23 Cats.

“We feel like we’ve got a pretty decent team,” Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua said after serving as UK’s acting head coach in the win over the Dominican Republic Select Team. “We’ve got size and athleticism.”

At the four spot, the 6-foot-9 Toppin (eight points, four rebounds, three steals, two blocks) and 6-9 Collins (15 points, five rebounds, five assists, two blocks) were stat stuffers. On the wings, the 6-6 Livingston (11 points, eight rebounds, four assists, a block) and 6-6 Thiero (seven points, three blocked shots, two steals) were active menaces.

It was exactly what Kentucky lacked a season ago.

Throughout the Calipari era, the thing that had consistently protected UK from the gob-smacking NCAA Tournament loss was its defensive length and athleticism.

The prototypical Calipari roster has tended to feature shot blockers in the post (think Anthony Davis and Willie Cauley-Stein); long-armed stoppers (DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) on the wings; and tallish point guards (John Wall, Andrew Harrison, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) to hound the ball.

Before the fateful 2022 NCAA tourney meeting with No. 15-seed Saint Peter’s, Kentucky under Calipari had faced 13 teams from outside the seven most-prominent basketball conferences (the football Power Five plus the Big East and the American) in March Madness.

Of those 13 teams, only two, Princeton (46.2) in 2011 and Wichita State (55.1) in 2014, had ever shot above 40 percent vs. Kentucky in NCAA Tournament play. UK was 13-0 in such games.

Alas, last season brought a very different scenario. When Kentucky entered the NCAA tourney against Saint Peter’s, the Pelicans actually had the size advantage over UK at two starting spots and were even with the Cats at two others. Only at center, where Oscar Tshiebwe, 6-9, was an inch taller than Saint Peter’s Clarence Rupert, did UK hold an advantage.

Not facing the traditional, long-armed Kentucky defensive vortex, Saint Peter’s shot 50.9 percent for the game and 52.9 on three-pointers and recorded a shocking 85-79 overtime upset.

The additions to the UK roster of Livingston, Thiero, the 6-5 Reeves and 6-4 Wallace should fix another Kentucky defensive bugaboo from a season ago. When Saint Peter’s guards Daryl Banks and Doug Edert lit UK up for 27 and 20 points respectively, it only continued a late-season trend.

Down the stretch of 2021-22, Kentucky was repeatedly torched by opposing guards. J.D. Notae of Arkansas hung 30 on the Cats; Alabama’s Keon Ellis went for 28; Vanderbilt’s Jordan Wright 27; LSU’s Xavier Pinson 26; and Mississippi’s Matthew Murrell 25.

Kentucky’s influx of backcourt length should put a stop to the gouging in 2022-23. In fact, UK’s defensive promise may even lead to a change in how Calipari-coached teams normally defend — with more emphasis on denying the passing lanes.

“There’s some things we’ve been trying this summer, understanding we need to utilize our strengths,” Antigua says. “Being able to have guys at all different positions who can play the (passing) lanes and use their defensive IQ to anticipate where passes are going (and to then) go and run through and play (offense) off of our defense.”

So as much fun as dramatic dunks, raining threes and strafing teams in a convention center can be, it is the return to typical Calipari-era defensive length and ferocity that is the number one reason Cats fans should enjoy what they are watching from the Bahamas.

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Box score from Kentucky basketball’s 108-56 exhibition opener in the Bahamas

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