Kentucky Wildcats forward Kevin Knox

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Kevin Knox is an elite shooter, a man who will make many important plays for Kentucky this season with his shooting stroke and the goose-neck follow through he makes with his right hand.

Saturday against Virginia Tech, Knox released the basketball in a very meaningful way for UK in the final minute of a pulse-pounding game… but not as a shooter. Knox’s brief but highly important reaction to a misplay enabled the Wildcats to take a significant step forward in their maturation process.

Kentucky led, 85-83, with roughly 55 seconds left. Knox dribbled near the left elbow but was stripped of the ball by a nearside Virginia Tech defender. The ball was within his grasp, but he was in traffic, and the shot clock was ticking down.

It had been a number of weeks since Kentucky has played a game of considerable consequence against an especially formidable opponent. Just one month into the season, a lot of college basketball teams which spend multiple weeks feasting on cupcakes can get passive. They can also shrivel and tighten up when having to play a close game. Georgetown offered a perfect example. The Hoyas played one of the worst RPI schedules in human history, and sure enough, in their first taste of true late-game heat, they wilted down the stretch, allowing the final seven points of regulation in a come-from-ahead overtime loss to Syracuse. Florida State didn’t play a cupcake on Saturday – the Seminoles faced Oklahoma State – but despite an unbeaten record, they looked and played like a team which feared failure instead of a team which expected success. They lost focus and calm down the stretch. They lost the game.

Back to Knox.

He could have exhibited the characteristics of a player unsure of himself, on a team which was asked many questions by a persistent Virginia Tech side. Knox could have panicked in that instant. He also could have tried to do everything himself and become a hero-ball star. In what had become a scramble situation removed from the structure of a clean half-court set, everyone inside Rupp Arena would have understood if Knox responded imperfectly in that high-stress moment.

Instead, Knox’s basketball instincts couldn’t have been any sharper. He threw a short push pass to his nearest teammate on the wing. Moments later, the ball was rotated to the corner, where Hamidou Diallo banged in a three-pointer for a restored five-point lead. At the other end, P.J. Washington swatted a shot at the rim, and in the course of roughly 10 seconds, Kentucky had transformed a tense and uncertain 39-minute game into a hard-earned victory. The Wildcats were never better than they were in the 40th minute. One calm action by Knox represented this team’s growth and worthiness on Saturday, in its only game of the past week.

Yes, this game against Virginia Tech revealed a noticeable and considerable degree of weakness on defense. Virginia Tech’s straight-line drives and forceful attacks to the basket were rarely thwarted. Virginia Tech’s overall three-point shooting looked good on the stat line, near 50 percent on over 20 attempts, but the Hokies’ long-distance proficiency decreased as the game went on. During portions of the second half, Virginia Tech shot a three before even trying to work the ball inside or continue to make Kentucky stop dribble penetration. That period enabled Kentucky to make a run. The Wildcats might have allowed 95 points had Virginia Tech been a little more focused and a little less sloppy.

Nevertheless, for all the flaws one can readily point to in the Wildcats’ defense, it can be said with great confidence that Kentucky needed this experience.

Whereas UK was ragged against Kansas, that was at the offensive end of the floor in a game whose character and flow were the complete opposite of this past game on Saturday. Teams need to be able to know they can play at different styles in the earlier part of a season before they know they can function and survive later in a season. That’s why this Virginia Tech game is such a benefit for the young Cats. They knew they were in a shootout and had to continue to produce on offense, generating just enough stops to pull through. That’s exactly what they did.

This defensive performance, despite creating 19 turnovers by Tech, should not be considered a surprise. After minimal game action the previous two and a half weeks, in games against teams with a fraction of the straight-line speed of Virginia Tech, it makes sense that Kentucky was knocked back and caught off guard on defense. It says a lot more about this team that it played extremely well on offense and got the win – that should rightly be the focus more than the flaws on defense, which Tech exposed and which John Calipari can now work on fixing.

Let’s talk about that offense: We’ve already mentioned Diallo’s emergence as a second perimeter threat to complement Knox, emblematic of UK’s resourcefulness. What also deserves mention is that Kentucky, midway through the second half, played to its strength and to a specific matchup advantage, its size and length on the glass. Nick Richards enjoyed multiple highly productive sequences, as the Cats played volleyball on the offensive glass and worked their way to the low blocks. Possessions were lucid and contained sound thought processes, shepherding UK through a game in which its defensive limitations were laid bare… but did not become large enough to cause a home-court loss.

Kentucky would have learned lessons if it had lost, but the Wildcats were able to make adjustments on the run in a full-throttle game and keep their nerve, as Kevin Knox did on the pass which initiated the most important 10 seconds of Saturday afternoon in the Big Barn in the Bluegrass. Adapting in the heat of battle – and not waiting for the next game to become a “bounce back after a loss’’ situation – makes this latest once-a-week game for Kentucky one of the season’s more satisfying entries.

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