High Point coach Tubby Smith reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 81-68. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
The High Point Panthers (6-7) — who were picked to finish last in the Big South’s North Division in the preseason poll — have one last non-conference tune-up against the No. 18 Kentucky Wildcats (10-2) Friday at Rupp Arena. Tip off is at 12:00 pm ET on the SEC Network.
Kentucky enters the contest as big favorites according to oddsmakers and KenPom predicts the Wildcats will win 79-55.
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O 135.5 (-110)
U 135.5 (-110)
Odds as of December 30th 2021.
The game marks a homecoming of sorts for Tubby Smith, High Point’s head coach who led UK to the 1998 national championship. His Panthers led No. 10 Spartans 35-34 at the half of an eventual 13-point loss, but Tom Izzo’s crew used an 11-5 run in the final five minutes to close things out. For the second straight game, Jaden House led the Panthers in scoring with 18 points, while Zack Austin added 15 and grabbed eight rebounds.
Meantime, John Calipari’s ‘Cats shot just 43% overall against the Tigers in their third straight blowout victory. But Keion Brooks Jr finished with a game-high 17 points (on 7-of-11 shooting) and nine rebounds. TyTy Washington chipped in 14 and Oscar Tshiebwe contributed 13 to go along with 20 rebounds.
Prior to the New Year’s Eve tilt at the venerable arena, Kentucky will honor Smith. The veteran head coach will become just the fourth coach to have his name displayed on a banner in the rafters of Rupp Arena — joining Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall and Rick Pitino. The emotions figure to help motivate a Panthers club that led a top-10 Michigan State squad less than 48 hours prior.
HOUS3 X3 @jhondo_ puts HPU up one at the half!#OurCityOurUniversity x #GoHPU pic.twitter.com/VgTfy1JPgZ
— HPU Men’s Basketball (@HPUMBB) December 29, 2021
Whether or not High Point can keep it within the line is the key question. This is a team that only owns three wins against Division I programs (Howard, Elon and Florida Atlantic) — with none of them cracking the KenPom Top 200 in overall ratings. Plus, UK has averaged a 30-point margin of victory in its last three outings against vastly superior competition (North Carolina, Western Kentucky and Missouri).
Junior guard John-Michael Wright is High Point’s leading scorer, averaging 20 points per game. Austin (14.0) and House (11.8) join him as the only other players Smith has putting up double-digits per contest. This team is not going to wow you offensively: it rates 276th in offensive adjusted efficiency and 314th in adjusted temp. But if the Panthers can take advantage of UK’s streaky shooting — the Wildcats shot just 38% in the second half against Mizzou — Coach Smith’s crew may be in good shape.
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Brooks and Done
Brooks provided some key moments for a somewhat sluggish Kentucky squad in the second half Wednesday, including a couple of dunks during a spurt that helped put the game on ice.
NOT TODAY 🙅♂️@KeionB_12 said nope. pic.twitter.com/MELnBujLpn
— Kentucky Men’s Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) December 30, 2021
Coach Cal knows he has a special player in the junior forward from Ft. Wayne, saying if he plays, we’re pretty good. Calipari added he’s had frank conversations with Brooks, holding him to a high standard. Brooks understands either he goes all-out with effort or Jacob Toppin comes in. The bench, as Cal likes to say, is his friend. He’s one of five players averaging in double-figures for the ‘Cats. That group is led by Tshiebwe’s 15.8 points per outing. The 6-foot-9 junior also pulls down a D-1-leading 15.8 boards per game.
After not making the NCAA Tournament last season, it appears the Blue Bloods from Lexington are back on track. The Wildcats are 10th in offensive adjusted efficiency and 20th in defensive adjusted efficiency. Not surprisingly, thanks to Tshiebwe, UK leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage.
The Panthers are an excellent three-point shooting team, with five players shooting 33% or better from distance (and four of the vie are over 40%) that take them regularly. That could keep this one closer than UK fans would like.
We just saw High Point keep it close against Michigan State. Expect more of the same Friday.
Pick: High Point +27.5 (-110)