LEXINGTON – I doubt very much that these Kentucky Wildcats will be ready for a game at Louisville on Dec. 29, and I’m not sure they’ll be ready for Maryland next Friday, Duke on Nov. 13 or even a road test at Notre Dame on Nov. 29.
But if the Wildcats are fortunate enough to remain healthy, I suspect there isn’t an opponent around – outside possibly Louisville – that will want any part of No. 3-ranked Kentucky come March.
That’s just my impression based on Thursday’s 93-61 romp past Rollie Massimino’s Northwood Seahawks in an exhibition game at Rupp Arena.
Granted, Northwood is just a Division II NAIA team, albeit a power at that level, but what was striking about this game Thursday was the large leap forward that the Wildcats have taken in just a week since their Blue-White game.
“I will tell you that we’re better than I thought we’d be,” UK coach John Calipari said. “We’re way away from where we need to be.”
Though Calipari said he yelled at his players so much in this game that he was “exhausted,” I don’t believe he’s too worried.
The Wildcats started slow, leading just 14-13 some nine minutes into the game, but then they took off, looking more like a potential NCAA champion the final 30 minutes or so.
Freshman center Nerlens Noel made a huge leap forward in a week, leading Kentucky to the win with Anthony Davis-like numbers: 17 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.
Noel was eight of nine shooting from the field.
Noel looked much more engaged than he did a week ago in the Blue-White yawner.
“He runs the floor well, he defends well, and he plays hard,” the legendary Massimino said of Noel. “I think he’s a very, very good player.”
Noel was one of five Wildcats in double figure scoring (does this sound familiar?).
Noel said he was nervous early in the game.
“But after the first half I snapped out of it,” he said. “I started to feel the way I should feel. It started to feel natural.”
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin led Kentucky in scoring with 22 points. He was 7 of 12 from the field and seven of eight at the free throw line.
You can say this definitively about Goodwin: This kid can flat out score. He could drop 50 on Indiana today. Goodwin just looks like he was born making baskets. He can knock down a jumper in his sleep, and he can create.
Now, again, I’m sure a more experienced team, like, well, Louisville, will clamp down on a youngster like Goodwin and frustrate him, but, again, give him 15-20 games and then try to stop him.
Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow was also better in this game for the Wildcats, finishing with 15 points, five assists, four steals and three blocked shots in 24 minutes.
Harrow is good enough to quarterback, so to speak, an NCAA champion.
“Ryan, in spurts, played like he’s got to play for us,” Calipari said. “Then he reverts, then it’s okay to get beat or get hung up on a screen and stop playing.”
And I like Goodwin as a backup point simply because it’s so hard to keep him from getting to the hoop.
“I feel comfortable at both (guard) positions,” Goodwin said.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress added 11 points and seven rebounds. Not eye opening numbers, but I love Poythress’ game.
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer had a sleepy 12 points and pretty much nothing else.
Freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein had just eight points, but added nine rebounds and three steals.
Grad student Julius Mays had six points and four steals.
“I thought Julius played steady for us, which is what he does,” Calipari said.
You can’t minimize the value a steady guy like the 23-year-old Mays, especially on a Kentucky team minus pretty much ANY veteran leadership.
Because here’s the thing, and why I believe this UK team will take lumps early: There isn’t a Darius Miller, a Terrence Jones, a Doron Lamb around.
After the game a reporter prefaced a question to Calipari like this: “This isn’t the first time you’ve started from scratch, obviously. I’m just curious...”
Calipari interrupted the questioner and said: “This is REALLY scratch. This is scratch-scratch.
“In one week, we’re playing (Maryland) on national television.”