UK Walls its way past North Carolina
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The legend of John Wall began when he beat Miami of Ohio on a jumper with under a second remaining in his college debut.
His importance to Kentucky was enhanced when he was out for long stretches in the second half Saturday against No. 11 North Carolina, allowing the Tar Heels to recover from a 19-point deficit.
But the talent evaluation and Wall's historical standing among point guards was done well before he stepped on a college campus.
"In Roy Williams' coaching time, he's the best point guard out of high school since Jason Kidd," said North Carolina's Roy Williams, the Hall of Fame, two-time national championship coach after No. 4 Kentucky's 68-66 victory over UNC at an erupting Rupp Arena on Saturday.
"I recruited Jason Kidd after the '91 Final Four, so that's [18-19 years]," Williams said. "He's 6-4, he's got blazing speed and he's going to be a vicious defender. He will start stealing the ball two or three times a game. His biggest weakness is his outside shot. What's the easiest thing to change? Your outside shot."
The Tar Heels snuck out to a 9-2 advantage before Wall silenced the run with a dunk and a reserve-scoop layup to propel the Wildcats on a 28-2 run to take control in the first half.
"He's so athletic," Williams said. "I just think he has a sense of when to push it and he thinks like a point guard. He knows when to slow it down, to get them into a set. He's the best point guard since Jason."
North Carolina point guard Larry Drew II, who had to defend the speedy Ty Lawson in practice last season, had trouble keeping Wall in front of him in the first half.
"He's so good in the open court," Drew II said. "He can do just about anything he wants in the open court. Our game plan was to build a wall around him once he got the ball, but he got out in the open court and got a lot of fast-break points going one-on-one. He's hard to stop when it's you and him in the open court."
Wall finished the first half with 13 points in 19 minutes to go along with five assists and four turnovers, some of which were a result of being a bit too excited and over-penetrating. He was an efficient 5-of-7 from the field, made his only 3-pointer and a free throw, and had two steals.
The Wildcats were up by 15 (43-28) at the break.
Two minutes into the second, Wall came up lame. He was cramping. He went to the bench for treatment, but that didn't work. He went to the locker room with the trainer. And that's when the cramping went full-body and sent the Wildcats into a spasm as well.
"I felt it as I was going into the locker room, my legs were cramping up," Wall said. He added that he started cramping up all over his body. The reason for the cramping, he said, had to do with not eating enough during the pregame meal. Assistant coach Rod Strickland went back twice to the locker room to give Wall an update on the score and to check his availability.
"I was anxious to get back there and help the team win," Wall said. "It was tough to see what was going on in the second half but I couldn't watch the game, so I wasn't sure what was going on."
The Tar Heels were down 15 when Wall went to the locker room. They were still down 12 when he returned, but the damage was done to his team's psyche. North Carolina saw an edge to exploit and the Wildcats weren't the same team. Carolina eventually got to within two with 32 seconds left and were down three with 7.1 seconds left.
Wall doesn't plan on making any more exits, but this was clearly a strong argument that the Wildcats won't be an SEC East title contender or reach the Final Four if he's not healthy and on the court.
"He does a lot for us and runs the team and gets everyone where they're supposed to be," Kentucky wing Darius Miller said.
During Wall's absence -- nearly seven minutes of game time -- the team was out of rhythm. Fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe had to be the leader, a role that he might not be suited for until he feels more comfortable in the position. In the opener against Morehead State, when Wall wasn't available, Bledsoe thrived. Why? "I guess I didn't have to pass it to John every time," Bledsoe said.
But in Wall's absence, it was as if Bledsoe was searching for him.
"I always look for John," Bledsoe said. "Coach [John Calipari] was saying I'm playing in cool mode and to get out of it."
Cool mode for Bledsoe means standing around too much, watching the ball and not boxing out.
Junior forward Patrick Patterson, who led the Wildcats with 19 points and seven boards, said he saw a lack of team effort without Wall. He said the team wasn't as active. That had to change and it did when Wall was back in the game, even though he admittedly wasn't as explosive with his first step. A clear sign of that was when he had a shot blocked by Carolina's Ed Davis late in the game.
"Whenever I get the ball and take it out, I can give it to John and he just blows by everybody," Patterson said. "He gets points in transition, looks to blow by people and hopefully lay it up at the other end. When John plays basketball the way he wants to play, he's knocking down shots, disturbing the ball, bothering the ball and playing great defense like he was. When we made that run [in the first half], he was distributing the ball and knocking down shots."
Wall finished the game with 16 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. He entered the day leading the SEC and ranked third nationally with 7.8 assists a game. He came up with a key steal on Davis underneath Carolina's basket, so quick that Davis said, "No, I didn't see him. He came out of nowhere."
Wall then iced the game with two free throws before Will Graves hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
In the end, Wall's coach liked what he saw from his team and his freshman point guard.
"You look at his numbers and they are unbelievable for 32 minutes," Calipari said. "Other than the seven turnovers, if he had three turnovers then he would have played a perfect game for a point guard."
There were a handful of NBA scouts in attendance, but they were there to watch more of the other first-round picks from both teams because it is a foregone conclusion. No one other than Wall will be the first pick in June's NBA draft. This isn't to push him out too soon. It's just a reality of the times in college basketball.
So enjoy Wall for this season and recognize his immense talent, his game-changing ability on both ends of the court, and his ability to find balance with Patterson will give the Wildcats a real shot at the Final Four come April.
Sure, Kentucky has plenty of issues, like Bledsoe's need to protect the ball better and make better decisions (two assists and four turnovers) and the silly fouls committed by DeMarcus Cousins (four fouls, five points) and Daniel Orton (four fouls). But the Wildcats found out something they may not have known even if it seemed obvious: They better find a way to play with more poise if Wall has to be out of the game for any reason.
"You are going to say that I am crazy, but I am happy how this played out," Calipari said. "We had to play without John against a good team and we had to just figure it out. When another team makes a run at us, let's see what we do. You have to understand how to play to finish it off."
Calipari will show the Wildcats how they didn't get the "50-50" balls and how they let Carolina get back in the game. The Tar Heels forced Kentucky, even with Wall back in the game, down to the final seconds on at least three possessions late in the second half.
Kentucky plays Connecticut in the SEC/Big East Invitational in New York on Wednesday and its first true road game is Dec. 12 at rebuilding Indiana. The road in the SEC East will be filled with potential losses, including games at Florida and Tennessee.
The Wildcats are hardly a finished product, and they found that out Saturday. Just ask their coach.
"We are not back, we are not very good," Calipari said. "We had 21 turnovers. There were times late in the game where you had to say, 'Why did he do that?' ... There were times when we looked really good defensively. For us to be this young and not be very good or know what we are doing, we have guys that are trying to have a will to win. Our execution stinks. I told them that if we get better at executing and taking care of the ball, I like our will to win."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.