Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over Bellarmine

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 60-41 win over the Bellarmine Knights on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena:

1. Kentucky made a hard game harder

Yes, this was a hard game. Everybody said that with its deliberate offensive style, Bellarmine was a hard team to play. Scotty Davenport’s Knights don’t just use most if not all of the 30-second shot clock, they move the ball for the entirety of the shot clock. Bellarmine makes you guard the basketball.

“That was a hard game,” UK Coach John Calipari said afterward. “We’ve got guys cramping in (the locker room).”

But Kentucky’s lack of offense in the first half made the game harder than it should have been. The Cats scored all of 21 points in a tie game at the break. That’s the fewest points scored by a Kentucky team at Rupp Arena since the 2005-06 Cats trailed Vanderbilt 23-20 on the way to a 57-52 loss.

Fortunately for the home folks, the Cats got their offense gear in the second half when they made 13 of 23 shots for 57 percent from the floor, including five of 11 three-point attempts for 45 percent.

Down 32-28 with 16:02 left, Kentucky ripped off a 23-3 run to take control of the game. Antonio Reeves hit an early three-pointer in that run. CJ Fredrick buried back-to-back threes. And Jacob Toppin did a good job of driving the ball to the basket.

Meanwhile, having played a pair of games in California — first at Loyola Marymount and then UCLA — over the weekend, Bellarmine hit a wall midway through the second half. The Knights went 16 possessions in which they scored all of three points.

The result was a 39-point second half for Kentucky and ultimately a 19-point victory, improving UK’s record to 5-2 before the Cats jet off to London to play Michigan on Sunday.

2. Kentucky did show discipline on defense

Here’s what UCLA Coach Mick Cronin said after the Bruins defeated Bellarmine 80-61 on Sunday: “If you respect the game, watching them play is refreshing, in my opinion. Preparing for it makes you a better team. You have to defend the whole clock, you have to have pressure on the ball, active hands, communication.”

(Note: Cronin and Davenport coached together under Rick Pitino at Louisville.)

In other words, you have to have discipline on defense. And in that regard, Calipari said he was happy with the discipline his team showed. After making 7 of 24 shots in the first half, Bellarmine was 7 of 22 in the second. The Knights ended up making just 8 of 28 three-pointers on the night.

For the most part, Kentucky was able to defend for long stretches without fouling. The Cats committed just nine for the game. No UK player picked up more than two fouls.

Unless Calipari’s club ends up playing Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, the Cats won’t face another team that plays the same style as does Bellarmine. Still, Tuesday was good exercise on playing both individual and team defense. For the most part, you’d have to say the Cats passed the test.

Kentucky’s CJ Fredrick (1) shoots the ball while guarded by Bellarmine’s Langdon Hatton during Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky’s CJ Fredrick (1) shoots the ball while guarded by Bellarmine’s Langdon Hatton during Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.

3. Across the pond the Cats will go

It’s finally here, Kentucky’s long-awaited trip to London, England, to play the Michigan Wolverines at 1 p.m. Sunday on ABC. The matchup was shelved by COVID in 2020 and scheduling conflicts kept it from happening last season.

Asked about it on Tuesday, Calipari mentioned that either Michigan’s or Gonzaga’s game at Kentucky next season could be moved to January because of the new SEC/ACC Challenge that will be played the weekend after Thanksgiving in 2023.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the players and the program. As for the competition, Michigan was 5-1 heading into Tuesday night’s game with Virginia in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Juwan Howard’s team has been a bit underwhelming. It lost to Arizona State 87-62, needed overtime to beat Ohio 70-66 and struggled with Jackson State before winning 78-68 last week.

Still, the Wolverines are a Power Five opponent. The setting will be different. The travel will be different. The crowd will be different. It will be interesting to see how Kentucky reacts to all those variables.

And after losses to Michigan State and Gonzaga, Kentucky could use a win against a marquee opponent. Sunday, the Cats get their chance.

Kentucky basketball vs. Duke at Rupp Arena next season? It could happen.

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