LEXINGTON — There was so much to like about the way Kentucky bounced back from its Michigan State loss by trouncing Robert Morris — yes the same Robert Morris that beat UK in the NIT last season — 87-49 here Sunday night.
The Wildcats hit free throws — at least in the first half — and Aaron Harrison broke out of his shooting slump with a career-high 19 points in the first half before finishing with 28 points (10-for-10 free throws, 7-for-12 field goals). The Cats dominated the rebounding 56-33 (Julius Randle 15, Willie Cauley-Stein 13) and points in the paint 36-16.
“Now that is over and order has been restored, maybe we can both move on with our seasons,” Robert Morris coach Andrew Toole joked.
Kentucky does hope to “restore order” to its spot as a national title contender after last year’s dip and obviously showcased the talent to that in this game. But it was the intangibles that stood out the most. Randle, who had his fourth straight double-double (only the fifth Wildcat to do that to start a season), had just one shot the first eight minutes. Point guard Andrew Harrison didn’t take a shot the first half. Cauley-Stein had nine offensive boards, but just four shots. He also had four blocked shots, two assists and one steal.
Aaron Harrison showed he could do more than shoot with three assists — one a left-handed pass from near midcourt and another after a steal that led to him starting a fast break.
“There is just so much upside for this team,” freshman Marcus Lee, who made his first start, said. “Every day I see what we are doing and what we can do. It’s amazing.”
Calipari knew this was a “revenge” game for UK fans — “Our fans wanted us to smash these guys,” Calipari said — but he was more interested in improvement. He put in new wrinkles, including a full-court press that Lee “loved” being on the point to pressure the ball.
“Coach had also really stressed running more, and we did that tonight,” Lee said. “We were sprinting, and that did make the game more fun.”
It also kept a player in the game. Calipari went to a nine-deep playing rotation with all nine players getting 10 or more minutes. Walk or job, a player came out. Hang a head or show signs of frustration, a player came out.
Calipari loved that Andrew Harrison, the point guard, had eight rebounds.
“That means transition baskets,” the coach said. “We had none (against Michigan State). We had 26 defensive rebounds, had two points (against Michigan State). That means everyone is jogging or walking. No one ran. And the last couple of days, that’s all we’ve worked on and if a guy jogged, I took him out.”
He also worked with Randle to handle double- or triple-teams better than he did against Michigan State when he had eight turnovers. He had three, all in the first half, but passed out several times to open shooters.
“I love the fact that he got 15 rebounds. He went after five balls with one hand. He could have had 20 because when he gets two hands on the ball you’re not getting it from him,” Calipari said.
Calipari didn’t think UK got the ball to Randle enough early.
“I thought in the second half he just got it and scored it or made a pass,” Calipari said. “He’s a great passer and here’s what I keep telling our team. If you go through him, they’ve got to stop him. They’re going to double-team him, which makes it easy for the rest of your guys.”
Cauley-Stein also played “with good energy” in his 25 minutes to get the 13 boards, four blocked shots, two assists and one steal along with seven points (he was 2-for-4 from the field).
“He gives us that added guys who can switch out and play if he had to and guard a guard for a pinch if he has to,” Calipari said.
Toole said it wasn’t hard to tell this year’s UK team was better than the one Robert Morris beat in the NIT.
“Last year they did not have a low-post presence that they could hurt us with. We had to make a choice going into the game today whether we were going to try and take away perimeter guys or try and flood the paint. We opted to try and flood the paint because we thought we could slow Randle down. You know, 10 points and 15 rebounds isn’t bad, right?” Toole said.
“Unfortunately, they were able to hurt us from the perimeter and they haven’t been able to have both things going this year. Last year they didn’t have that low-post threat that we really had to focus on. We were able to take away Julius Mays on the perimeter and make (Alex) Poythress put it on the floor and things like that, which we weren’t able to do this year due to some of their backcourt play. I think from a defensive standpoint, (Willie) Cauley-Stein was a great shot blocker last year and a great rim protector for them, but I think they have so much more size and length on the perimeter that it makes it difficult for you to run your offense.”