Too much hype? Wall is well worth it
NEW YORK -- As his team was stretching after a recent practice, John Calipari asked for a show of hands.
Did anyone, the Kentucky coach wanted to know, have a problem with the attention being paid John Wall?
It was a legitimate question.
Labeled the basketball messiah upon his arrival, the freshman is now a full-blown Elvis in high tops, swarmed by fans when he tried to sit in the Madison Square Garden seats to catch a few minutes of the game before his own on Wednesday night.
He has been written about and talked about more than any player this side of Tyler Hansbrough, and has turned cynical sportswriters into middle-school girls penning puppy-love letters while dashing to the thesaurus to find the ideal synonym for awesome.
Somewhere, you just know a children's choir is thinking up a song about him (don't laugh -- they did that for Gerry McNamara at Syracuse).
It could be a bit much if you're say, Kentucky junior forward Patrick Patterson, a preseason All-American who could be cashing an NBA paycheck right now.
So Calipari wanted to make sure no one was feeling run over by the John Wall Love Train.
The Wildcats may be young, they may make their coach crazy at times, they may be a ridiculously talented work in progress.
They are not, however, stupid.
No one raised a hand.
"Patrick said, 'I don't care,'" Calipari said. "And someone else said, 'You know, coach. He's pretty good.'"
Which is sort of like saying Stephen Hawking is pretty smart.
Wall is gifted, which isn't a news flash. But it's more than that. He is preternaturally poised -- a kid who admits he never had to win many games in high school, yet already has won four in college.
The latest chapter in Wall's building biography of game-changers came against 12th-ranked Connecticut, his the fitting last dagger in an epic game. With 30 seconds left and Kentucky down 61-60, Wall took the ball on a toss back from Darius Miller and drove, splitting two defenders before going to the rim and banging bodies with Connecticut's Alex Oriakhi.
Wall gives up 45 pounds to Oriakhi, all of which ended up in his right hip as he went up.
Count the bucket, score the foul.
End the game, 64-61.
"Like coach says, he just wants me to make plays, so I was just trying to make a basket," Wall said.
Wall made baskets in flurries against UConn, three early in a furious 12-0 run that left tread marks on the Huskies. Then, more importantly, he scored 12 of the Wildcats' final 15 points when the game was on the line.
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun tried to upset Wall's rhythm, switching the longer Stanley Robinson on him for the game's final two possessions.
The first time it worked. Kentucky was called for a shot-clock violation.
The second time it didn't.
"To do that, it's real hard," UConn point guard Kemba Walker said. "Especially for someone like him. He has all that attention, the No. 1 draft pick, so every night people are coming at him and he has to show how good he is. I'm pretty sure everybody in the building knew he was taking that shot, and he made it."
In the end, Wall was the difference literally and figuratively between Kentucky and Connecticut. The Huskies played their best game of the season, not only withstanding the early 12-0 UK run that would have sent lesser teams packing, but mounting a 26-6 charge to combat it.
Jerome Dyson, yanked and read the riot act in the first 30 seconds by Calhoun, responded with 10 points in that critical run.
From there, the game became a high-impact, entertaining game that at times went by in a blur, packing the intensity of March with the sloppiness of December.
If there was a half-court offense being run by either team, it was well-disguised.
But ultimately, Wall was the difference. Connecticut simply doesn't have a player like him, a guy who can dominate a game.
"Wall is all of that," Calhoun said. "Whatever that is, he is all of that. He's no freshman. He's a great player. That's what he is."
The danger here is to stare at the 9-0 Kentucky record, to look at the marquee wins over North Carolina and Connecticut and label this fourth-ranked team as a finished product.
It is almost impossible not to get swept up in the euphoria. After two years of mediocrity, Kentucky is good again.
Wall is all of that. Whatever that is, he is all of that. He's no freshman. He's a great player. That's what he is.” -- Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun
No, scratch that. Kentucky is really good again.
The sun is shining on the commonwealth, daisies sprouting where Billy Gillispie-sewn weeds once stood. Cat fans, the same ones who were so disenfranchised and disappointed last season, giddily filled Madison Square Garden, finding all sorts of unique and impressive ways to wear royal blue -- hats, pants, sunglasses, beads.
They are happy and they have a right to be.
But before anyone starts running off into the rainbow-fueled sunset, allow Calipari to throw the wet blanket. In vintage Coach Cal hyperbole, he argued his team could be -- and maybe should be -- 4-5 right now.
It's a gross overstatement, but point taken.
If Kentucky has a flaw, it is its age. These are kids -- really talented kids, but kids. They win on instinct and talent and guts and style, which is fun to watch but not terribly fun to coach, because a coach knows the dirty secret: It's not enough. It's not reliable.
So Calipari cajoled, screamed, pleaded and stomped.
And that's when his team was up 12-0.
"We just do stuff and you're like, 'What are we doing?'" he said. "We drank the poison in the first half. We go up 12 and they're celebrating like they won the national championship. We're in a good position, but we are just so young. Sometimes it's just torture on the sidelines."
The hardest job for Calipari just might be keeping this team grounded. With Wall as their pied piper, the Wildcats are commonwealth royalty again.
Anyone not having fun?
Show of hands, please.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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