'Cats aren't great now, but just wait until spring
Kentucky isn't great right now. But the warning signs are there for opponents come February and March.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Think of the Kentucky Wildcats as college basketball's Chia pet for 2004-05.
A little nourishment, a little nurturing, some direct sunlight -- then watch them grow. (The Wildcat Chia pet would make a great holiday gift, too. Operators standing by!)
They're not great right now. But the warning signs are there for opponents come February and March.
If you're looking for a work-in-progress team to follow this season, Kentucky is it. Tubby Smith's callow crew took another step in its development Saturday in Freedom Hall, toying with Indiana for the fifth straight year, 73-58.
While what used to be one of the nation's marquee rivalries shriveled a little more Saturday, the 6-1 'Cats went the opposite way. They grew up a little more.
Seven of the 10 Wildcats who saw playing time against the Hoosiers are in their first or second year with the program. Four are freshmen. Two others are sophomores who played zero meaningful minutes last year. The seventh is transfer Patrick Sparks.
Yet against Indiana they played like TubbyBall veterans -- unselfish, physical and totally committed to defense. It's not a glamorous way -- but with Smith, it's the only way.
"I think today we came pretty close to finding out who we are and what we are with our defensive presence," he said. "I think we made a statement today with our defense."
The statement was 38 percent shooting by the Hoosiers. That's an important number. Prior to wiping out Morehead State last Wednesday, Kentucky's first five games showed a disturbing trend -- the opponents' field-goal percentage had gone up every game, capped by North Carolina shooting 49 percent and sprinting past the 'Cats 91-78.
That loss was Kentucky's first test of the season. This game, played before a 50-50 red-blue fan split in Freedom Hall, was the second. The growth curve from last Saturday to this Saturday was steep.
"I think we played with a lot more poise today and patience," Smith said. "We were a lot smarter."
Smarts were a huge component of the Wildcats' 59-9 record the previous two seasons -- best in the land during that time. This team is not as good as that group was, but it's more physically talented -- which is why it could wind up being better by season's end.
In freshmen Rajon Rondo, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, Smith has more athletic ability than at any time since his national championship team of 1998. If they and the other youngsters on the roster keep learning the Smith Way -- defense, rebounding, inside-out offense -- the future is rosy.
But as intriguing as the freshmen are, the true poster boy for Kentucky's potential is 7-foot-3 sophomore center Shagari Alleyne. He was a painfully ponderous collection of knees, elbows and size-21 sneakers last year -- so raw that the term project seemed wildly optimistic. Recruiting mistake seemed more accurate.
Today he's a Chia pet in full bloom -- Alleyne's 10 points, five rebounds, four blocked shots and two assists against Indiana show that he has become a certifiable presence.
He's longer than a weekend with the in-laws -- as the Hoosiers found out. They kept taking the ball right at Alleyne, and he kept swatting away or altering shots -- often while standing flat-footed. He dunked over the smaller Hoosiers three times and lobbed in a hook shot. Even more impressive, Alleyne actually made a couple deft passes to teammates.
"I feel much better," the New Yorker said. "This is my second year, my teammates are helping me and I'm just trying to get better."
Is this the same guy whose warm-ups seemed stapled to him last year, playing a total of 59 minutes and scoring all of 14 points? A tougher, stronger and more aggressive Alleyne has already turned in 94 minutes and scored 41 points this time around, and it's not even Christmas.
"One hundred percent improvement," said Kentucky assistant coach Reggie Hanson. "He had nowhere to go but up. He's bigger, he's stronger, he is more polished."
How good can he be?
"As good as he wants to be," Hanson said.
And if he wants to be really good?
"He can be a pro," Hanson said. "There's not a lot of high school, college or even NBA guys who are 7-footers, back to the basket, who are blocking shots, scoring points and getting rebounds. & We push Shagari hard because we see his potential."
And how did Alleyne make this much improvement?
"Drills, drills, drills and more drills," Hanson said with a laugh.
Beyond the coaching staff, Alleyne's primary drill sergeant last season was point guard Sparks, who sat out after transferring from Western Kentucky. Since neither had much to do during Kentucky's 27-5 run last season, Sparks -- the son of a high school coach -- made Alleyne his personal project.
He threw him lobs to help develop his hands. Threw him entry passes. Lots of hand-eye coordination stuff.
"I saw the talent in him last year," said Sparks, who had team highs of 16 points and six assists against Indiana. "Now it's starting to come out, and it's really helped us out."
Smith's supernatural patience has paid off with Alleyne. From a broader perspective, that patience will be called upon this season as this team develops. You don't learn TubbyBall overnight.
"First, you have to get them to understand how we want them to play," assistant coach David Hobbs said. "It's a process getting there. It'll take some time, but that's what the season is for."
But here's the catch -- next Saturday, a veritable state holiday in the commonwealth of Kentucky, is no time for patience. The Wildcats visit hated rival Louisville. To the extreme dismay of Big Blue Nation, Rick Pitino has handed Smith his head the past two years.
So in the midst of nursing along his young team, Smith must try to torque up the 'Cats for a December game the fans view with religious fervor. It hasn't worked well against Louisville lately -- but Kentucky has finished stronger each of the last two years.
And to borrow a horse-racing term, this young UK team looks like it will be running at the end.
"That's the scary thing about this team," Alleyne said. "We can get to a much higher level."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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