By Ricky Blair – Lexington, Kentucky – On a huge weekend for Kentucky sports, UK fans saw the football team fumble and stumble to a 21-17 loss at the hands of the Vanderbilt Commodores. The loss dampens a once promising season as the Wildcats fall to 4-6 overall with a fifth straight loss.
While the football team struggled, the basketball Cats unveiled a new group of young stars for Coach John Calipari as he enters his seventh season for the Big Blue.
On Friday night, the young Wildcats took on an experienced Albany team that participated in the 2015 NCAA tournament. Two senior guards led the Great Danes from Albany, and the experience showed, as the Wildcats had a hard time putting away this veteran team. But in the end, the Cats finally pulled away with a 78-65 win.
There were a few surprises on the night. With freshman guard Isaiah Briscoe sitting due to injury, the Wildcats starting lineup included Marcus Lee, Skal Labissiere, Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and 6-foot-6 freshman guard Charles Matthews, who was starting in place of Briscoe. But it was junior forward Derek Willis that stole the show in the first half as he scored a career high 14 points before halftime, which included two three pointers. Willis’ big half helped steady the young Wildcats, where they went into the break with an 11-point lead. Willis did not score in the second half, but he did finish with a strong stat line of 14 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists. Not bad for the young Kentuckian from Mt Washington. Marcus Lee also put in a surprising performance, chipping in 12 points and 8 rebounds. But it was the debut performance of freshman Jamal Murray that left fans talking about how the sky may be the limit for this skilled young man from Canada. Murray led the team with 19 points and 8 assists, while making several spectacular plays.
It was certainly a quick turnaround for the basketball Wildcats, as they had to play their second opponent within a 24 hour period. The Cats’ game on Saturday was against the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). You may find yourself wondering why in the world Kentucky would play a team like this. Reason? The NJIT group just happened to upset the Michigan Wolverines in 2014 and won a school record 21 games while playing in the CIT tournament at the end of last season.
Playing another experienced team, the Wildcats fell behind early and did not take the lead until half way through the first half before hitting the accelerator and racing to an 87-57 win. Skal Labissiere led the Cats’ offense with 26 points. However, he was not alone as several Wildcats had good stat lines on the night. Freshman Isaiah Briscoe, playing his first regular season game as a Wildcat, had a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds. Junior forward Derek Willis followed up his strong performance on Friday with 11 points Saturday night. Jamal Murray, who led the Wildcats the night before, was one of few players who struggled. He was 3-13 from the field, including 1-10 from the three-point range. For the team, it was a strong performance, and hopefully a nice tune-up before the Wildcats take on the Duke Blue Devils in the Champions Classic in Chicago, Illinois on Tuesday night.
While the football season is once again on life support, the basketball team is trying to pick up where they left off last season. The future is definitely bright.