Shaky win over Southern Illinois leaves No. 2 Kentucky with even more questions to answer

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Is Kentucky that bad or is Duke that good?

A question from Tuesday night’s Indianapolis massacre turned to another during Friday night’s home opener for second-ranked Kentucky. An expected get-well game was instead worsening matters and stirring up grumbles at Rupp Arena.

So … is Kentucky that bad or is Southern Illinois that good?

All due respect to the Missouri Valley Conference’s Salukis, who did return all five starters from a 20-win team and “played our (expletive) off tonight,” their coach Barry Hinson said approvingly.

But it turned out the Wildcats weren’t as bad as they looked for a while Friday night. They responded after a scare — with the help of an awakening crowd — to win 71-59.

It felt more like survival than any type of turning point, a sigh of relief and some fresh positivity after a rough few days for Kentucky’s team.

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“Hard second game. I’m still mad we scheduled it. I’m mad we scheduled the first one when we did,” UK coach John Calipari said. “And after we played two exhibition games, I knew where we were.”

For the Wildcats, the in-house fallout from Tuesday’s 118-84 blowout loss to Duke came well before a less-than-packed arena greeted them Friday night.

That first game, it carried the kind of sting doesn’t quite go away, at least until you play again. There were team meetings and pledges to not let it happen again.

“That’s not our team the way we played,” forward EJ Montgomery said.

Social media reaction from fans can be tough after such a loss. Kentucky’s players hinted that it was this time.

“We were kind of mad that we disappointed our fans,” forward Nick Richards said. “… It was a game that humbled us as a team. They’re a really good team. They came out the aggressors. We didn’t fight as much as we could in that game. Stuff didn’t go our way, and we just kind of put our heads down.”

Then there were the practice sessions. Predictably and deliberately, they were tough. Players said so. Calipari said so. Coaches harped on defense, using short stints on the treadmill as motivation.

In turn, Calipari remarked that “we had some guys that got mad last practice.”

“I had to explain to them, ‘You’re not supposed to be mad. I’m supposed to be mad. You’ve got this backwards,’ ” Calipari said. “Again, when you’re dealing with young kids, and I told them, it’s not their fault. Whose fault it is? It’s my fault. … The way they played up there (against Duke), each of them looked bad. Not one of them looked good. That’s on me. And I let them go out there and play that way? I’ve got a lot of work. We’ve got a lot of work to do to get this team where it needs to go.”

Such rhetoric, only four days into the season, is alarming for a Kentucky team that was No. 1 in a lot of national preseason polls, favorites in a tough SEC, picked by many to reach the Final Four and perhaps win it.

How did this seemingly perilous point arrive so quickly?

Is it time to panic? No, assured Hinson.

Really, Southern Illinois’ coach means that. He was asked for an opening statement at Friday night’s postgame news conference and responded by pleading passionately for patience with Kentucky’s team.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Hinson, his voice rising while speaking directly to Kentucky fans. “These guys are 18, 19, 20 years old. And you have children of your own. And you want to microwave the maturation process, and you can’t do that. It takes time. So back off and let these guys go through the maturity process and let Coach Calipari do what he does best. And by March, you’re going to have something on the floor that you’re going to be really proud of.”

Southern Illinois’ coach said he watched Tuesday’s game and winced at the thought of getting an angry Kentucky out to prove a point Friday night.

But Kentucky didn’t show up in that kind of form.

These Wildcats weren’t sharp. They were sloppy.

In the first half, they committed 14 turnovers and made 10 shots from the field. The turnover total dipped to five in the second half, which is largely why the Wildcats survived it. That and their 48-19 rebounding edge over the undersized Salukis (Richards alone had 19 rebounds for UK).

“We’ve got to get better with the ball,” Calipari said. “We’re going to show them tomorrow all 19 turnovers, and I’ll have one question after each one: Was that necessary? … My guess is nine of them were like, ‘Why in the world would you even attempt that?’ ”

Other things didn’t go well. Starting forward Reid Travis was sidelined most of the first half with two fouls and finished 1-of-2 from the field. Starting guard Tyler Herro, a freshman, was 0-for-6 shooting and didn’t score.

The 12-point final score was the Wildcats’ largest lead of the game. They’d trailed 44-37 with 14:20 to play before finishing with a flourish, led by the bright spots of 15 points each from freshmen Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley.

“We made strides today,” Calipari said. “Nick made strides. Immanuel made strides. P.J. (Washington) made strides. Quade (Green) made strides. … We had some guys not play well. I just said, ‘Hey man, be happy we won. And figure it out.’ ”

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