With Duke on the horizon, can Kentucky basketball answer an all-important question?

Silas Walker
·4 min read

In case you haven’t checked the calendar, Kentucky-Duke is less than a week away. The next installment of the Cats-Devils college basketball rivalry is set for next Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. at New York’s Madison Square Garden as the second game of the Champions Classic doubleheader. ESPN has the telecast.

Will John Calipari’s team be ready? Hard to say, of course, Tuesday being the regular-season opener against a formidable foe. Duke was ranked ninth, Kentucky 10th in the AP Top 25 preseason poll.

So far, we have but one UK game to go on, the 95-72 exhibition victory over Division II Kentucky Wesleyan last Friday. There was some good in the game: Keion Brooks and TyTy Washington on the offensive end. There was some bad: A noticeable lack of post defense.

The Cats return to action Friday night for another exhibition, facing Miles College, the final tune-up before the Big Apple. The hope is we’ll get more of an idea if UK can answer the question that could decide success or failure in 2021-22. Can the Cats make shots from the perimeter? After all, for all that went wrong on the way to a 9-16 record in 2020-21, Kentucky’s most glaring shortcoming came in an area of growing importance in the sport.

Look at last year’s Final Four. Three participants ranked in the top 50 nationally in three-point shooting percentage. National runner-up Gonzaga shot 36.8 to rank 45th. UCLA’s strong tournament run owed much to the three-point shot. The Bruins ended up hitting 37.2 percent for the season, 35th nationally. And Baylor was the nation’s best three-point shooting team, hitting 41.3 percent of its attempts on the way to the national championship.

Kentucky shot 33.5 percent to rank 172nd nationally. It was the third-worst three-point shooting team in the Calipari era, ahead of only the 2013-14 edition (33.2 percent) and Cal’s first Kentucky team in 2009-10 (33.1). For the most part, both those teams were good enough to overcome their lack of perimeter punch. That wasn’t the case with last year’s team.

So what about this year? Calipari appears to recognize the way the game is changing. He’s talked about how it’s more of a skill-based sport, though athleticism remains a high priority. And to that end, Cal used the transfer portal to secure a couple of top-notch three-point shooters in Kellan Grady and CJ Fredrick. Grady shot 38.2 percent from three last season at Davidson. Fredrick shot an eye-popping 47.4 percent at Iowa.

We didn’t get to see Fredrick against Kentucky Wesleyan. The former Covington Catholic star is working his way back after knee surgery. Meanwhile, Grady showed some first-game jitters, making just one of his four three-point attempts. As he continues to learn the offense, and adjusts to his new surroundings, he will undoubtedly improve.

Grady wasn’t alone. The two best three-point shooters among UK’s holdovers both had off nights. Dontaie Allen shot 39.7 percent from three last season. He was 1-of-4 against KWC. Davion Mintz shot 37.8 percent from three last season. He was 1-of-5 in the exhibition opener.

The most encouraging three-point performances came from different directions — one old, one new. Junior forward Keion Brooks was just 6-of-28 on three-pointers in 2020-21 for 21.4 percent. He made four of his six three-point shots against Wesleyan. Freshman TyTy Washington was a perfect 3-for-3 on his threes last Friday. And looked comfortable doing it.

Overall, Kentucky was 11-of-29 from three for 37.9 percent. Not bad. True, it was against inferior competition. Also true, it was the Cats’ first shots at the Rupp Arena rims in game competition.

“My son said to me, ‘We took 29 threes,’” Calipari recounted after the game. “I said, ‘What was the percentage?’ He said, ‘37.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m good with that.’ You shoot 37-40 percent, you probably should take 29 threes.”

How many will UK take against Miles? How many will it make? We shall see. And in doing so, we may get a hint of what could happen next Tuesday against Duke.

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