Case closed: Kentucky is here to stay
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kentucky coach John Calipari was quietly writing a few thoughts down on a locker room whiteboard when he stopped and said that he was looking forward to learning about his team.
He knew Kentucky was vulnerable at times. He could sense his players hadn't been put in too many difficult situations. He was anticipating that Florida's O'Connell Center would be as rocking a home court as the Cats would see this season.
He had no idea just how well his team would respond.
And then, hours later, with his team suddenly in a tie game at 72 after being up 15 points 10 minutes earlier, he knew exactly what kind of team he had on his hands: a potential national champion.
If he didn't already know that Kentucky could challenge Texas and Kansas for the title, he certainly knows now.
"I'm not afraid to lose a game," Calipari said after Kentucky held off Florida 89-77 in its first SEC road game to go to 2-0 in the league (17-0 overall) and 2-0 in true road games after also winning at Indiana. "I don't want to lose any. I want to win them all, but it's not life or death. So I said, 'Let's see who we are.' We have the will to win. The biggest thing that we have to learn is when we get someone down 12, 13, we've got to get it to 18, 20, 22 points. You must. We don't."
Ah, to be picky at the top is such a privilege -- one that Calipari can gladly claim at this juncture. Kentucky took Florida's best shot and swatted it away rather quickly.
Need an alley-oop to break some momentum? Then super freshman John Wall, one of the front-runners for national player of the year, can deliver one.
"What was I thinking then?" Wall said, referring to when the Wildcats lost the lead. "Don't force it. Don't take bad shots. We've got the will to win and we started making plays at the defensive end. A dunk and a block can get your momentum back. Our team is young, but we've got the will to win."
Need a blocked shot after a miss to silence another run? Well, Wall can get that for you too, as he blocked Kenny Boynton's run-out when the Gators were desperately trying to climb back from nine down after a 10-1 run.
"That block was ridiculous," Calipari said.
Need someone other than Wall to jump start the Cats? Then call on the other guard, the one that Florida coach Billy Donovan said Tuesday night might be the most underrated guard in the country, Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe had 15 points in the first half and made 6 of 7 shots. He finished with a career-high 25 point on 10-of-13 shooting. There were some stretches in the first when Bledsoe and Wall were answering Florida with bang-bang plays at one end, causing Kentucky assistant Orlando Antigua to turn to his fellow staffers and say, "Did you see how fast that was? I couldn't believe it."
Kentucky's win at Indiana was a solid road win. But this is the SEC. This was Florida, a team that had beaten Michigan State on a neutral court and a Florida State team that should finish decently in the ACC; even with close losses to Richmond and South Alabama, the Gators are still a viable threat to finish in the top three in the SEC East.
"I know we have a long way to go, but we all feel we can make it to the Final Four," Patterson said. "Each and every day we find out something new. We're learning how to stay poised, calm, cool and collected. We zone out the crowd. We stay strong."
You can pick apart the warts all you want. Wall's outside shooting was off (1-of-7 on 3s), but he makes the big-time plays when the game matters most. Bledsoe was a star early in the game. Cousins, even with foul trouble (four), had a few plays when he wrestled the rebound away from two Florida defenders and still finished. As one Florida staffer said late Tuesday night, he's just better than everyone else in the Gators' frontcourt.
And that's it. Kentucky has the talent to win the title. That's not breaking news. But what was clear Tuesday was (1) just how quick the Cats can get from end-to-end with Bledsoe and Wall, (2) just how large the big three of Cousins, Patterson and Orton can play to outmuscle teams, and (3) just how many options Calipari has with his role players when he's looking for a defender, a quick 3-pointer or someone to facilitate ball movement.
Wall is the closer. He didn't cramp up in a big game for the first time this season. Maybe it was the nine bananas he said he ate earlier in the day to avoid cramping.
Wall made the right diet choice Tuesday and the Wildcats continue to make the right calls when the games matter most.
There is something special going on here that everyone needs to notice. It's pretty clear UK has moved to another level. There is a separation now, with Kentucky, Kansas and Texas as the three favorites to win the national title. It's not an exclusive group and there are no guarantees, but it's clear the Wildcats are talented enough, poised enough and even mature enough to be a real contender. Sure, the group can expand beyond these three teams, but we may not know the others in this class until March.
Look, talent wins -- and Kentucky simply has more than most. The speed, the size and the ability to make plays it was all on display here in Gainesville. Kentucky will lose somewhere -- maybe more than once in the regular season -- but that won't mean the Wildcats can't win the title.
If you were here on Tuesday night, or watched on television, you know such an argument simply doesn't fly.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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