Kentucky Closes Exhibition Season with Kentucky State on Friday

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Listen to John Calipari talk and it sounds like 2014-15 all over again.

Coach Cal has a talented young big man projected as the possible No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. He came to Kentucky with an offensive skillset belying his 6-foot-11 frame, but Calipari is working with his pupil to focus more on his inside game.

“The reason you want to step away from the basket is because it’s easier," Calipari said. "You’re not going to have body to body. ‘I don’t have to fight. Let me just shoot this fade-away jumper.’ You ain’t going to win a whole lot of games shooting that shot all the time, but it’s a lot easier than going in there and mucking it up with some guy that’s trying to beat on me.”

Kentucky
Kentucky State at Kentucky
Fri., Nov. 6 - 6 p.m. ET
Rupp Arena
Lexington, Ky.
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UK 2014-15 Team Stats KSU
0-0 Record 0-0
0-0 Conference Record 0-0
.468 FG% .421
.354 Opp FG% .428
.349 3FG% .334
.726 FT% .677
74.4 PPG 68.2
38.0 RPG 36.1
6.87 BPG 3.30
14.18 APG 11.90
6.49 SPG 6.00

Wait, Karl-Anthony Towns came back for his sophomore season after all? You might think that, until Calipari starts naming names.

“So, he and Karl, it was the same thing: teaching them winning basketball,” Calipari said.

The "he" in this case, of course, is Skal Labissiere.

Labissiere is a week away from opening his Kentucky career officially, with only an exhibition tune-up against Kentucky State at 6 p.m. on Friday separating him from his regular-season debut. A few months into his time in Lexington, Labissiere is already on an upward trajectory similar to his predecessor.

“Just being more aggressive,” Labissiere said. “I feel like I’ve come a long way since I’ve been here this summer. And learning how to play with the other guys.”

Labissiere showcased that dynamic offensive game in UK’s first exhibition, scoring 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting. What was lacking were the things Calipari is trying to expand in Labissiere’s game. 

“Just catching more balls and grabbing more rebounds and blocking more shots and just be more aggressive overall,” Labissiere said.

The Port-au-Prince, Haiti native had five rebounds and two blocks in the game and those numbers don’t capture is the “catching more balls” part. 

“We’ve got to really do a better job of teaching him how to fight position, how to hold his position and how to make sure you’re catching balls,” Calipari said. “Catching it close, it’s all new to him. We can’t just run by and say ‘just catch it’ because you can’t. And you have to do it without fouling. We’ve got a long way to go.”

That’s no wonder, considering Labissiere made his name on offensive versatility.

“I love to face up,” Labissiere said. “I think that’s a big part of my game, but now I’m learning how to play with my back to the basket and attacking more instead of settling for jumpers. That’s something I’m still working on and have to get more comfortable with.”

A big help along the road ahead for Labissiere will be Isaac Humphries, who has no issue undertaking the task of bodying up his positional counterpart.

“I like being physical, so I just kind of put my body on the line and go for it,” Humphries said.

Labissiere is already starting to reap the benefits.

“He pushes me, makes me better, pushes me around, just tries to get me to play tougher and lower,” Labissiere said.

Humphries, meanwhile, is getting plenty out of the matchup as well.

“I was thinking the other day on how much I’ve improved since being here, just going against everybody in practice and stuff like that,” Humphries said. “And the coaches we have here just helps me get better every day.”

Humphries is surely thinking about Kenny Payne when he says that. The UK assistant works tirelessly with UK’s big men, Labissiere included.

“He’s on me every practice – every second of practice – making sure I do everything right,” Labissiere said. “We watch film together and all that, so he’s definitely a big help to me.”

Labissiere is building trust with his coaches, which is wise considering their track record in developing post players. UK has produced a big man picked in the top seven of the NBA Draft in each of Calipari’s first six seasons at the school. Not only that, they have gone on to thrive at the next level. Five of those seven draft picks are averaging double-doubles in points and rebounds, accounting for half the players in the NBA averaging points-rebounds double-doubles. 

That includes Towns.

“I’m going to try to be my own person, but I’ve watched Karl the whole season,” Labissiere said. “I’ve seen how much better he has gotten and I expect to get better, a lot better, by the end of the season, too.”

Murray Narrowly Misses Triple-Double in Dominant Exhibition Win

In their first action of the season against another opponent, the Kentucky Wildcats blitzed Ottawa early and often. With a three-guard lineup, an uptempo offense and a smothering full-court press, Kentucky pulled away by as many as 35 points in the first half and cruised to a 117-53 victory in the exhibition opener.

The highlights of the game: Kentucky tallied the first 13 points of the game, scoring on the first six possessions, in the opening 2:06 of the game. UK hit the century mark with 5:12 left in the game on an offensive rebound and putback by Alex Poythress, making the score 101-50. Freshman guard Jamal Murray led the Wildcats with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Murray also had nine assists, narrowly missing a triple-double. The only triple-double in Kentucky history was by Chris Mills, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Austin Peay on Dec. 27, 1988. Sophomore guard Tyler Ulis also had a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists. Ulis made 4 of 5 on his 3-point shots. Six Wildcats scored in double figures – Murray 22, Skal Labissiere 18, Ulis 17, Isaiah Briscoe 11, Marcus Lee 10 and Derek Willis 10.

Wildcats Start Season at No. 1 in Coaches’ Poll

Kentucky begins the season as the top-ranked team in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll for the third season in a row. The Wildcats share the preseason top spot with North Carolina. The two teams both garnered 749 points from the ballots of 32 Division I coaches. UNC had 12 first-place votes, compared with UK’s 11. Four preseason coaches’ top-25 teams are on Kentucky’s 2015-16 schedule (No. 4 Duke, No. 5 Kansas, No. 19 LSU and No. 20 Vanderbilt).