Kentucky sees value in one-sided victory as a ‘learning experience’

·4 min read

Dontaie Allen, the homegrown darling of Kentucky fans, had missed every one of the earlier six shots he’d taken. Barely four minutes remained in UK’s 85-57 victory over Central Michigan on Monday night when his three-point attempt from the corner nearest the home team’s bench went in with a needed assist from gravity.

John Calipari could not resist playfully needling Allen.

“By the way, you rattled it in,” the UK coach said he told Allen. “It hit the rim seven times.”

Allen’s reaction?

“He just started laughing,” Calipari said.

There was a reason to poke fun just as a blasé victory over yet another outclassed opponent could have long-term significance, the UK coach suggested.

“Dontaie can be a game-changer for us,” Calipari said.

The lesson in this instance was to see competing — not making shots — as key. Allen made only three of 11 shots (one of seven from three-point range). But he had six rebounds, which was one shy of a career high.

Perhaps this supported long-range objectives behind playing a game in which victory was all but unavoidable.

For those who prefer competitive games and basketball drama, Kentucky-Central Michigan lived down to expectations.

Even by the modest standard set by Kentucky’s home schedule so far this season (average margin of victory 28.8 points), Central Michigan paled by comparison. The average Ken Pomeroy rating for opponents in UK’s current span of seven straight home games was 269.

Pomeroy ranked Central Michigan at No. 315, which was the worst rating of the seven opponents in this “tune-up” portion of the schedule.

UK’s victory validated Pomeroy’s number crunching.

Yet, Kentucky, now 6-1, saw profit in another easy victory.

“It’s a learning experience,” Jacob Toppin said. “We’re still learning how to play with each other. We’re still learning what shots to take and what shots not to take. We’re just learning to trust each other.”

Freshmen Bryce Hopkins and TyTy Washington spoke of improving team chemistry.

Calipari spoke of other gains from these “tune-up games,” as he’s called them. Of course, because of the coronavirus, UK did not have many of these games last season en route to an un-Kentucky-like 9-16 record.

“Start building confidence and togetherness,” Calipari said when asked what gains these games can have. “And you make them pass the ball to each other. You make them make the easiest play.”

When asked about a set rotation of players, Calipari said, “I think it’s going to be game to game, and guys are going to have to accept that. If somebody is playing well, I’m going to play him a lot of minutes.”

Toppin voiced “100 percent” support.

“That’s what’s scary about this team,” he said. “We have a lot of depth, and you could put five in and (take) five out, and keep doing that. And there’s going to be no fall off.”

Kentucky dominated from the start. UK made its first six shots and led 13-5 less than four minutes into the game.

The sharpshooting included three-pointers by Keion Brooks and Sahvir Wheeler, two players that came into the game having combined to make five of 21 shots from beyond the arc this season.

Wheeler’s early three-pointer put UK ahead 16-5 moments before the first television timeout at the 14:56 mark.

Twenty-four seconds later, Central Michigan called time. In that span, Oscar Tshiebwe dunked a Wheeler lob, then Wheeler converted a steal into a fast-break layup to make Kentucky’s lead 20-5.

The timeout did not have an impact. Central Michigan (1-5) made only five of its first 21 shots en route to a 33.3-percent shooting half (10 of 30).

“We came out a little nervous,” said Central Michigan Coach Tony Barbee, the former UK assistant.

Meanwhile, Kentucky twice expanded its first-half lead to 31 points, the second time with more than five minutes left.

Kentucky settled for a 51-25 halftime lead.

Nothing changed after intermission.

Washington capped a 10-3 Kentucky run to open the second half with a three-pointer from a distance near the “four-point line” on the team’s practice floor. It put UK ahead 61-238 with 16:07 left. That marked the biggest lead to that point.

By then, Tshiebwe had clinched its sixth double-double in seven games. He finished with 20 points and 16 rebounds. That enabled Tshiebwe to tie Fardaws Aimaq of Utah Valley for the most double-doubles in Division I.

Back-to-back dunks by Toppin and Tshiebwe gave UK its largest lead at 65-31 with 13:38 left.

Still, perhaps looking long term, Calipari voiced concerns.

“I’m worried about my team playing the right way,” he said. “I’m worried about my team fighting (and) my team being consistent for 40 minutes on how we’re going to play.”

Next game

Southern at No. 9 Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7

TV: SEC Network

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