Kentucky’s talented freshman class has had little trouble learning first-year coach John Calipari’s dribble-drive offense. There has, however, been an alarming lack of intensity when it comes to perimeter defense.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats look to fix those problems Saturday when they host Rider, a squad seeking a second victory over a ranked SEC opponent this season, as part of the Cancun Challenge.
Kentucky has scored 83.0 points per game while shooting 53.3 percent during its 3-0 start. Heralded freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe have seamlessly joined holdover Patrick Patterson in learning Calipari’s system that he brought from Memphis to Kentucky.
Patterson has been a force in the low post, averaging 19.0 points on 79.3 percent (23 for 29) shooting, and combining with Cousins to grab 28 offensive rebounds.
Cousins had 27 points and 18 boards while Patterson added 20 and nine in Kentucky’s 102-92 victory over Sam Houston State on Thursday. The Wildcats, though, never pulled away as they allowed 18 3-pointers - a performance that followed Miami of Ohio making 15 in Kentucky’s 72-70 win Monday.
“They have no urgency defensively, none,” Calipari fumed after Wall bailed out the Wildcats against Miami with the winning shot with 0.5 seconds to play. “If we don’t do better defensively folks (we are in trouble).
“Do you think we can score 100 against everybody? Because we’re going to have to. They are going to score 100 against us.”
The defensive problems on the perimeter may bode well for Rider (2-1), which opened the season with an 88-74 victory at then-No. 18 Mississippi State on Nov. 13 and has made 33 of 68 shots (48.5 percent) from beyond the arc. Ryan Thompson, Novar Gadson, Justin Robinson and Patrick Mansell are each shooting at least 52.6 percent from 3-point range, and the Broncs have been more accurate on 3s than from inside the arc (42.3 percent).
That perimeter touch, however, failed the Broncs in a 79-46 loss at Virginia on Thursday. Rider made 7 of 23 from beyond the arc and shot 33.3 percent overall.
Thompson was plagued by foul trouble and managed nine points after totaling 35 in the first two games.
“We just didn’t knock the shots down,” said Thompson, the younger brother of Sacramento Kings forward Jason Thompson. “The last two games we were making everything. Tonight, it didn’t go in. It was just a bad day for us.”
The Broncs are eager to regroup and look to become the latest lesser-known non-conference school to win at Rupp Arena in recent years, joining Gardner-Webb, San Diego and VMI.
“We have to go to Lexington thinking we can win,” forward Mike Ringgold said. “If we don’t, the same thing could happen that happened (in Virginia). We go into every game thinking we can win. We went to Mississippi State thinking we could win and we did.”
Kentucky won both meetings with Rider, the most recent a 96-52 victory in the first round of the 1993 NCAA tournament.