Both talent and youth on display for UK
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Now that the Rick Pitino-John Calipari soap opera is over for another year and the sideshow can be tucked back in the circus tent, let's get down to more tangible topics.
Like where does Kentucky stand among the elite teams this season?
Texas has already proven its worth by beating North Carolina in Dallas and Michigan State at home. Kansas demolished No. 19 Temple on the road Saturday and Purdue knocked West Virginia back to Morgantown. Syracuse still gets plenty of credit for beating North Carolina in New York in November, but the home loss to Pitt will raise questions.
Kentucky beat UNC here and withstood a Connecticut run to hold off the Huskies in New York. On Saturday afternoon, the game started like it was headed for a brawl at Rupp. The first 45 seconds saw plenty of jawing between Kentucky's Eric Bledsoe and Louisville's Edgar Sosa, a rugby scrum among UK's DeMarcus Cousins and UL's Reginald Delk and Jared Swopshire that resulted in technicals and a forearm from Cousins that could have been whistled as a flagrant foul.
But the rest of Kentucky's 71-62 win gave us poor perimeter shooting (a combined 7-of-31), no Louisville bucket for the first nine minutes, a few different runs, a 13-point UK lead and a stunning one-point Louisville advantage midway through the second half. It also left us with some questions about how we should gauge the Wildcats after winning this chippy game despite going 2-of-14 on 3s, committing 18 turnovers and not displaying the ability to step on a team's throat when it is gasping for air.
"The one thing we're missing, and it's major, is experience," said Kentucky coach John Calipari after his Wildcats moved to 15-0 with the win.
"We'll get that as we play," Calipari said. "We've got size, got speed, got guard play and got shooting. We're a pretty good defensive team and we're tough enough on the bench. We've got some experienced players, but too many that we're counting on are inexperienced. So we won't know [until March]."
The Wildcats did force 19 Louisville turnovers and helped force the Cardinals to shoot 5-of-17 on 3s and at one point the U of L was 1-of-19 from the field (finishing 19-of-59 for 32.2 percent).
"Kansas goes to Temple and is up 14 and then all of a sudden is up 30," Calipari said of the Jayhawks' 84-52 win over the Owls on Saturday. "We get up 14 and then turn around it's six. That's inexperience."
Calipari has a stud forward in junior Patrick Patterson, who scored 17 but had only four boards. But look at the rest of the roster. Who else is he counting on? John Wall, the top point guard in the country, even as super as he is -- and as Pitino said, his demeanor can be Kobe- or Jordan-like -- is still just a freshman. So, too, is Cousins, Bledsoe and center Daniel Orton -- and wing Darnell Dodson is a first-year Juco transfer.
Cousins scored 18 points and had 18 boards after his tussle in the first minute.
"I understood [how hard he needed to play], but I couldn't produce [earlier in the season]," Cousins said. "Now it's starting to click."
Cousins even caught on to the Commonwealth rivalry quickly, calling it a "strong hate."
To continue to correct the inexperience stunting his team's growth, Calipari said he's going to run triple-session practices Monday through Wednesday, a double-session Thursday and then practice Friday before opening SEC season against Georgia on Saturday.
The Wildcats then will be pushed considerably at Florida on Jan. 12.
"Next week is my week, the end of Camp Cal," Calipari said. "I'm going to drive them like crazy and do whatever I can to make them better."
Calipari said the Wildcats are well behind other teams on situations, like what they should do when they need a 3-pointer with less than four seconds, how to break a zone and how to stop the bleeding in games.
Patterson has recognized the shortcomings. He said teammates are still running up the court trying to do their own thing at times.
"We have to correct things like that," Patterson said. "We have to be more talkative, especially on the road. We've got to improve our conditioning so we can run longer. We've got to be more mature and handle ourselves on the court. We know who can score and who to go to, but if we want to win this national championship then our defense has to pick up a lot more."
Wall admitted that the record-Rupp crowd (24,479) got the Wildcats back in the game after they lost the lead about midway through the second. He said the Wildcats are fine on the break, but need to make sure the big guys get the ball in the half court.
These are all fixable problems.
Look, Kansas is what you see -- an exceptional team with older players and a big-time freshman leading it in scoring. Texas has the most depth and can continue to fine tune. Purdue will be known for its defense and its moxie and poise late in the game. Syracuse has length on the zone, but is still relying on a transfer (Wesley Johnson), a freshman point (Brandon Triche) and role players who have been thrust into larger contributions.
Kentucky may have the most potential among any of those teams. That doesn't mean the Wildcats can beat any of them come March, but there is tremendous room for growth.
Calipari said this is the biggest team he has coached, including his stint with the New Jersey Nets. He has a star in Wall, a stud in Patterson and a big man in Cousins, who is finally understanding how good he can be if he plays hard and smart.
"There are probably 12 teams that can win the whole thing and I'm hoping we're one of them," Calipari said. "Between now and the beginning of March it will be whose team can improve the most. Whose team has the most upside do you think?"
That's the question. Kentucky has the potential, but the SEC road should provide clues as to whether or not the Wildcats can be the answer come April in Indianapolis.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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