Cats to face test against Virginia Tech

Published 4:30 pm Friday, December 15, 2017

LEXINGTON (KT) — Kentucky will have two options on the table when it takes on Virginia Tech on Saturday at Rupp Arena.

“We are at that stage with this team, we win or we learn,” Calipari said Friday. “That’s where we are. I’m not taking it any other way. We win or we’ll learn. And we are going to learn as individual players where guys are and as a team where we are.”

Whether the eighth-ranked Wildcats (8-1) win or lose in their last home game before the Christmas break, the Hokies will provide a test for Kentucky, especially on the defensive end of the floor.

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The Hokies (9-1) have a reputation as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the nation and rank second in 3-point field goal percentage (46.8 percent), knocking down an average of 10.3 treys per contest. Virginia Tech has made at least 10 shots from long range in five games this season and leads the nation in field goal percentage, scoring offense and scoring margin.

“This team is the best 3-point shooting team we will face all year,” Calipari said. “They draw fouls because they put their head down and they go at that basket. The other thing they do is they are going to press us. They are not going to come in here with all this respect and go back and play a zone or sag. They are going to press us. They are playing fast.”

Following a 93-76 win over Monmouth last week at Madison Square Garden, Calipari said the Wildcats weren’t getting the respect they deserved, especially nationally after winning eight of their first nine games. Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel hopes playing a higher-caliber squad will help the Wildcats gain more recognition.

Gabriel said the contest is an “opportunity for us to prove ourselves.”

“I think we deserve more credit than we’re getting, so we’re going to go out there and try to earn it,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity we can do that for each other.”

Kentucky and Virginia Tech haven’t played since the 1996 season when the Wildcats defeated the Hokies 84-60 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The appearance will be the Hokies’ first in Lexington since an 80-77 setback to Kentucky to open the 1962-63 campaign.

“They have veteran guys,” Calipari said. “They have one freshman, but this is a veteran team that has done this in the ACC. They’re not afraid. They go on the road in big games. Their home games are craziness. This is plugged into our schedule at a time where we need to learn about us, and we will.”

Injury update

Calipari said he’s confident guard Quade Green or Sacha Killeya-Jones will be able to play against the Hokies Saturday. Jones recently sprained his ankle and Green sat out most of the second half of last week’s win over Monmouth following an eye injury.

“It’s funny they both got better and everything was going good and then they got to take a step back,” Calipari said.

Freshman Jarred Vanderbilt hinted on social media earlier this week that he was closer to making his first appearance in the court, but Calipari wasn’t as optimistic.

“He’s not playing to help us win,” Calipari said. “We’re not going to do that. If I don’t think he’s capable of playing to the level he needs to play, then I won’t play him, whether he begs me to go in. We’re not just trying to put a guy in that’s going to damage him to win more games. I won’t do that. He’s going to have to be able to prove to me that he’s going to be able to go. I’m not saying he’s 107 percent, I’m just saying that he can go and compete at a high level and not damage himself.”

Family ties

Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexnder and Virginia Tech freshman Nickeil Alexander-Walker are first cousins and played prep basketball together at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Gilgeous-Alexander’s father and Alexander-Walker’s mother are siblings.

“It’s going to be weird,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’ve never gone against each other in a real basketball game. It should be a lot of fun and I’m excited.”

Like his cousin, Alexander-Walker said playing against Gilgeous-Alexander will be “weird.”

“He’s like a brother to me,” he said earlier this week. “I feel like I’m playing against myself.”

Although cousins, Gilgeous-Alexander said the two players share different talents on the court.

“He’s more of a jump-shooting guard (and) I’m more of an attack-the-basket guard,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We got a lot of the same — it’s basically the same height, same length. We both know what each other like to do and our tendencies. It’ll be fun going against each other.”