Kentucky vs. Southern Illinois score: No. 2 Wildcats push past Salukis late to avoid upset
It's early, but Kentucky isn't looking like the well-rounded powerhouse many thought it would be
For a while there, it looked like the story of the weekend might be Kentucky matching its ranking with its number of losses: two. But a second-half push lifted the No. 2 Wildcats over Southern Illinois on Friday night, dodging the worst effects of a Duke hangover and getting UK to 1-1. John Calipari's team won 71-59 against a Southern Illinois squad that .
It was an ugly mud fight for UK early, though. The Wildcats had eight turnovers in first eight minutes. They they had 11 giveaways through 11 minutes. By halftime: 14 turnovers. The panic button was within reach when SIU led 44-37 with a little more than 14 minutes remaining.
With 8:50 to go, Kentucky went up 55-50, its five-point lead the largest of the game at that point. It was that kind of night. Thankfully, Kentucky sophomore Nick Richards had the best game of his career -- and a few of his teammates came through late to salt the game away. But since this is Kentucky and because the win was anything but pretty, let's take a scan of where UK stands after two games.
1. Nick Richards overshadowed some concern with UK's bigs: Richards' rebounding saved Kentucky early and then propelled Big Blue to this W. He had a career-high 19 boards, which is the most rebounds in a game by a UK player since Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Richards also had eight points and three blocks; he was really good. That's an inspiring thing for Calipari to see. You tell me Richards is going to average double digits in rebounding this season, I'm telling you he's going in the first round of the 2019 draft.
But Richards' prowess can't cover up the glaring lack of production so far from P.J. Washington and Reid Travis, who are supposed to be Kentucky's two most important players. Washington had three points and five turnovers. Travis had six points, five rebounds and took only two field goal attempts. He's not nearly been the force he should be. Washington should be the heart of this team, but he hasn't shown that through two games, and by extension, Kentucky doesn't look like a team with cohesion or second-nature communication on the floor at this point.
Had UK hosted a top-50 team on Friday night and mimicked its performance against SIU, it's unlikely it would have pulled out a win.
2. The turnovers: Kentucky has 34 turnovers through two games. Freshman point Ashton Hagans is very much still working his way into Division I adaptation. Tyler Herro, who was the breakout star of the preseason for Kentucky, was 0-of-6 from 3 in 20 minutes of action on Friday night. UK ranked 181st in the country last season in turnover rate, according to KenPom.com. That means it was just about average when it came to giving the ball away. With an influx of playmaking guards and wings, Kentucky shouldn't be this careless. Keep an eye on that going forward.
3. This November and December could wind up looking familiar: By that I mean, Kentucky's had four seasons in the previous nine under Calipari in which it lost at least three games out of conference in the regular season. And even in some of the better years, Kentucky's needed a month-plus to find itself and discover its identity. I didn't think that would be the case with this team, but maybe it's inevitable. The rotations, the starting lineup, none of it seems obvious at this point. Who will be the alpha on this group? We don't know. I thought it would be Travis; maybe it still will. With Immanuel Quickley's opportunistic play on Friday, it's a good sign. He and Keldon Johnson each had a team-high 15 points, and Quade Green's move to off-ball guard could prove to be a nice coaching tactic by Calipari.
But immediate returns on the Wildcats show a team with talent that's rugged and rusty, which isn't what we saw when UK played in the Bahamas against professional teams in August. Next up is at home against North Dakota on Wednesday. It shouldn't be a close game, but that's what most thought about Southern Illinois, too.
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