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Getting to know: Kentucky basketball

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Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) puts up a three during the first half against Kentucky, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) puts up a three during the first half against Kentucky, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky. by Nick Krug

At the beginning of every college basketball season, Kentucky reloads with a talented crop of star freshmen. Check. Then there’s usually at least a couple of holdovers from the previous season, hoping to improve their NBA draft stock. Not this year.

Calling this team young would be an understatement. Eight freshmen. Three sophomores. Zero seniors. Of course there’s plenty of talent, but they’ve shown their youth in narrow wins over Utah Valley and Vermont heading into Tuesday’s Champions Classic matchup against Kansas (8:30 p.m., ESPN) in Chicago.

The Wildcats (2-0) are ranked seventh in the nation, so it’s expected they will figure out their early-season woes in a hurry. Wenyen Gabriel returns with the most experience and he only played 26 minutes in four NCAA Tournament games last spring.

“They want to be coached,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said in the preseason. “They want to listen. They just are young; and it's hard to be patient. I told them, look, guys. If I've got to start getting meaner, I will. But we've got to start making this gradual climb.”

The Wildcats have a 4-2 record in the Champions Classic, suffering their lone loss in 2013. But Calipari expects his team to learn plenty about themselves against the Jayhawks, just like they did in their first two games. 


“We’ve got to stay together,” freshman point guard Quade Green said. “That’s what young teams do; they stay together. Once we stay together, I don’t think nobody can beat us.”

Fun fact: Under John Calipari, Kentucky has a 50-22 record against opponents ranked in the AP Top 25 poll. When both teams are ranked in the Top 10, Calipari has coached the Wildcats to a 13-7 mark.

Series history: Kentucky leads 22-8. The Jayhawks won in Lexington last year, 79-73, during the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Frank Mason and Josh Jackson combined for 41 points.

BREAKING DOWN KENTUCKY

TOP PLAYER

No. 5 — F Kevin Knox | 6-9, 215, fr.

Kentucky's Kevin Knox (5) dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Utah Valley, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 73-63.

Kentucky's Kevin Knox (5) dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Utah Valley, Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 73-63.

Highlighting Kentucky’s latest star-studded freshman class, Knox has the height and measurable of a forward but the skills of a shooting guard. He’s more likely to shoot threes and slash to the rim than do many post-up moves with his back to the basket. 
 Through two games, Knox hasn’t been at his best. He’s averaging 11.5 points and 7.0 rebounds on 26 percent shooting from the floor. He’s only made 2 of 8 3-pointers. But coach John Calipari was encouraged that Knox made a late 3-pointer in the team’s win over Vermont because he’s still looking for a player who will take over in crunch time.

Knox’s dad, Kevin Knox Sr., was a receiver at Florida State, winning a national title in 1993. Knox Sr. was a sixth-round NFL draft pick in 1994 and played one season with the Arizona Cardinals.

  • “I’m not a big talker or yeller or anything like that,” Knox said. “I talk on defense a little bit, but I’m not the type that’s gonna yell every time I score or nothing like that. I’m really quiet on the court.”

SUPPORTING CAST

No. 3 — G Hamidou Diallo | 6-5, 198, r-fr.

Kentucky's Hamidou Diallo (3) receives instructions from head coach John Calipari during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vermont, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.

Kentucky's Hamidou Diallo (3) receives instructions from head coach John Calipari during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vermont, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.

Diallo joined the Wildcats in January last season, but didn’t participate in any games. He went through the NBA draft process before opting to return to school. He impressed scouts with his 6-foot-10 wingspan and 44.5-inch vertical leap.

An improving shooter, Diallo leads Kentucky with 17 points per game while making 48.3 percent of his attempts. According to hoop-math.com, nearly two-thirds of his shots are jumpers inside of the 3-point arc.

No. 25 — F PJ Washington | 6-7, 236, fr.

Fresh off Kentucky’s first double-double performance of the season — 17 points and 10 boards vs. Vermont — Washington is averaging 11 points and 6.5 rebounds in the first two games. He’s struggled at the free-throw line, making only six of his 13 freebies.

Calipari challenged Washington to play with more motor throughout the preseason. After his double-double Sunday, which included stretches where the offense ran through him, Calipari said, “PJ was a beast, finally.”

No. 0 — G Quade Green | 6-0, 180, fr.

Kentucky's Quade Green (0) shoots near Vermont's Payton Henson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 73-69.

Kentucky's Quade Green (0) shoots near Vermont's Payton Henson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky won 73-69.

A point guard from Philadelphia, Green will likely have the ball in his hands to start the offense in the final minutes of close games. In two games, he’s averaging 9.5 points and 2.5 assists while shooting 40 percent from the field.

  • "It's hard to fill everybody's shoes that have come through here, but I've got my own shoes to fill," Green said.

ONE THING KENTUCKY DOES WELL

Protect the rim. The Wildcats haven’t played good man-to-man defense in their first two games, struggling to stop penetration with freshmen defenders. “If our guards can’t stay in front of people, we’ll get beat by 30,” Calipari said.

Fortunately for Kentucky, there are some shot blockers behind its guards. Wenyen Gabriel has four blocks in two games, while Nick Richards has three.

ONE AREA KENTUCKY STRUGGLES

The Wildcats are one of the tallest teams in the country, but they haven’t shot the ball well. As a team, they are making just 42.6 percent of their shots with one out of every five shots coming from behind the 3-point line.

With a lack of ball handling (1.33 assist-to-turnover ratio), they haven’t been able to set up their wings and forwards for easy baskets.

MEET THE COACH

John Calipari is in his ninth season at Kentucky. He was an assistant KU from 1982-85, leaving one season before Bill Self became a grad assistant under Larry Brown.

Once Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009, he’s coached the Wildcats to a 3-2 record vs. KU. In the Champions Classic, Calipari is 5-1.

VEGAS SAYS…

Kansas by 4.5. Obviously, the Wildcats have been underwhelming in their start to the season, dropping a few slots in the polls despite winning both games. One of the keys for the Jayhawks will be their defense from Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk, and perhaps Marcus Garrett, against Kentucky’s oversized freshmen wings.

My prediction: Kansas 79, Kentucky 67. Bobby’s record vs. the spread: 1-0.

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