LEXINGTON, Ky. — After playing in the bright lights and hype of the Champions Classic at New York's Madison Square Garden, a big question will be how No. 2 Kentucky responds to more subdued environment.
The Wildcats return home fresh off their impressive 69-48 rout of No. 13 Michigan State and they will get their answers Sunday night against Duquesne.
“Great question,” Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne said Friday. “But we don't have to worry about that. The way that we coach, the way that we prepare those kids know that after that game is over, we celebrate. It's over. On to the next.”
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“The issue is outside of this environment. The friends. The parents. Their families. Now, they might talk to them about, 'Man, you all are the real deal.' But when they walk in this gym and they walk in our offices, they know it's on to the next. So they have no time to relax and feel good about anything. We're trying to get better.”
Payne explained it is part of the regular process in playing at Kentucky where everyone else is always trying to fast-forward to an NCAA championship.
“It's in everything we do every single day,” Payne said. “We're trying to get better every day. Are we happy we beat Michigan State that''s a really good team? Yes, we are. Did we play our best? Not even close. Not even close.”
The top concern for coaches is rebounding. Kentucky was out rebounded 44-40 by Michigan State and 36-28 by Stephen F. Austin. UK did top Canisius 39-36.
“I think one of the things that has been a little disappointing with our athleticism, energy and length is that we haven't dominated teams on the glass thus far,” Payne said. “Don't see that as a long-term problem, but it's something that we have to focus on and get better at.”
In Duquesne, the 3-0 Wildcats will face a team that is 2-2 on the young season. The Dukes defeated Loyola Maryland 65-60 and Saint Francis 89-75 but lost to Penn State 82-74 and Canisius 78-77 on Friday.
“We just need maturity and more time together,” Duquesne coach Jim Ferry said. “The biggest issue we have is the schedule. We're basically playing every other day. So we've not had the practice time we really needed. Our practices have been our games (leading to) making decisions on the fly.”
Duquesne is trying to restart after losing its top three scorers to graduation. Sophomore guard Tarin Smith leads the way at 15.5 points per game followed by freshman forward Isiaha Mike at 12.0. Darius Lewis, a 6-11 senior post player from Lexington, Ky., is the top rebounder at 6.5.
Kentucky is averaging 83 points per game and has three players scoring in double figures, all guards. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe is tops at 19.7 points per game followed by freshman Malik Monk at 16.3 and De'Aaron Fox at 15.0.
Freshman Bam Adebayo and sophomore Isaac Humphries share the rebounding lead at 5.7 per game.
Monk is coming off his best game with a team-best 23 points against Michigan State during which he made 7-of-11 from 3-point range. In fact, it was the best overall game by Kentucky to date. To fend off any letdown, coaches make sure players are competing against themselves.
“They don't really know, and they're learning,” Payne said. “For every one of these kids in this program, other than Isaiah Briscoe, everybody is still learning who they are as a player. There have been times when they haven't been in dog fights before. So, they're getting a chance to see.”