In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m just going to throw this out there: Up until about 10 days ago, I had absolutely no idea that the Kentucky Wildcats, the No. 2 ranked team in all of college basketball, were playing a weekend tournament at the Mohegan Sun Casino, which is about an hour from my house. Actually, in the interest of full-disclosure, I didn’t even know that there was a college basketball tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena at all, and even after I saw “Kentucky” as the headliner, had to verify that it wasn’t indeed a women’s tournament. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Still, it’s not often that the No. 2 team in the country shows up in your neck of the woods, and since it might turn out to be the only chance I get to see Kentucky in person all season, I decided to make the drive down.
Here are Ten Takeaways I had after watching their 62-52 win over Old Dominion Sunday.1. Kentucky’s Upside Is Terrifying: Alright, so let’s start with the obvious and say that Sunday’s game against Old Dominion wasn’t pretty. You know that. I know that. My three-year-old niece who thinks “Kentucky” is a character on Sesame Street knows that. At times it was ugly, at times it was sloppy, and at times it was more WWE than CBB. Oh, the beauty of November college basketball, huh?
Except there are some other truths too.
The first is that after seeing them in person, I absolutely believe Old Dominion is one of the 25 best teams in college basketball right now. Will they be ranked there anytime soon? Of course not. They play in a small conference, aren’t a recognizable brand name (like Butler or Gonzaga), and have already lost two games, to two really good teams. So instead of ranking them, we’ll do what we always do instead, which is most likely plop some slow-footed Big Ten team into Old Dominion's place, then act surprised when the Monarchs beat them by 15 points in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Again, that's just how the system works.
And you know what? I don’t care. I’ve been watching hoops my whole life, and I know a Top 25 team when I see one. Old Dominion is one. They’re long, they’re athletic, they have playmakers, and most of all, had the swagger of a Top 25 team yesterday afternoon. Yes they were overwhelming underdogs, yes they were playing the No. 2 team in the country, and it didn’t faze them in the least. From warm-ups, through the opening tip all the way until the end, Old Dominion carried themselves like they thought they belonged on the court with Kentucky, which in it's own way is half the battle. As a matter fact, from what I’ve seen early, I’m comfortable saying that of everyone in the SEC besides Kentucky, only Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama are as good as Old Dominion. That’s it. And, had the Wildcats beaten any of those teams by 10 points on a neutral court yesterday, nobody would’ve said a peep. But because it was Old Dominion, because they’re from the CAA, everyone is trying to look too much into it. Which they shouldn’t.
Beyond that, let’s think back to Sunday’s game in specific, and remember that neither Kentucky’s two best players (Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones) played particularly well. Davis spent big chunks of the second half on the bench before fouling out, and as for Jones, well I can’t remember one memorable play from him all afternoon. And I was sitting 25 feet away from him for two straight hours.
Which brings me to this: Is there a single team that could’ve gotten minimal contributions from their top two players, and still beaten that Old Dominion team by 10 on Sunday? Sure North Carolina might've been able to, but really, that’s it. Ohio State couldn’t have survived an off-night by Jared Sullinger and Will Buford and gotten a win. UConn couldn't have without Jeremy Lamb and Alex Oriahki and it's the same with Syracuse if Brandon Triche and Kris Joseph didn’t play well.
The point is, that as much room for improvement as Kentucky has, it’s scary how good they can eventually be.
2. Darius Miller Is Going to John Calipari’s Trump Card All Season Long: This is just a hunch (and I have no inside information in saying this), but if I had to take a guess, I’d bet that barring injury, Darius Miller doesn’t start another game the rest of the year for Kentucky.
Understand that it has nothing to do with Miller himself. At least not as much as I think that John Calipari will really enjoy having Miller as a trump card off his bench, and really enjoy using Miller's presence as a way of getting his starters to buy in, and get what he wants from them.
Basically, look at it like this: If someone doesn’t come into any given game focused, guess what? Their butt will be parked on the bench. If a guy doesn’t want to play defense? Miller will play their minutes instead. If someone’s upset because their girlfriend broke up with them, you know what Cal's response will be? Maybe it’s time to get a new girlfriend. And until you do, take a seat.
Sunday’s game proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. Early on Marquis Teague was sloppy…obviously. And you know what? As soon as Teague started giving the ball away he got a seat on the bench, Miller came in the game, and not surprisingly, the team played better. More importantly though, when Teague came back into the game, he looked re-focused as well. On his first play back, the freshman point guard drove the lane, and found Anthony Davis for an easy bucket down low. At no point Sunday was Teague great, but it was also clear that at some point he said to himself, “Crap, if I don’t figure this out, I might not play again.”
It’s a lesson I expect many of Kentucky’s players to learn this season.
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s ‘Energy’ Was The Most Impressive Part Of His Game: Truth be told, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist entering the season. Because of the hype that preceded him (he was basically the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2011 from the time he left the womb, right up until Anthony Davis had a freakish growth spurt two summers ago) I kind of expected Kidd-Gilchrist to come to Kentucky as most typical high school stars would: Full of himself, apathetic to defense and too concerned with his own offensive game. If that happened, I wouldn’t have blamed Kidd-Gilchrist. It’s just the star system we’ve created for young basketball players.
Except, truthfully, Kidd-Gilchrist doesn’t play that way at all. As a matter of fact, what has been most impressive to me so far is how seamlessly he’s fit into what Kentucky is doing, and how willing he is to do all the “little things” it takes to win. If anything, Kidd-Gilchrist could become this team’s “glue guy,” which is kind of a weird thing to think about, since how many former No. 1 recruits end up playing the role of “glue guy” at the college level? How many are even willing to consider it?
Only that’s exactly what Kidd-Gilchrist was Sunday; someone who didn’t seem to care much about his stats, and only seemed to want to do whatever it took to help Kentucky win. Kidd-Gilchrist obviously got his points, but he also played really solid defense, flew all over the court- and above all- picked up the rebounding slack when his teammates needed him. With Davis on the bench with fouls and Jones in one of his funks, it was Kidd-Gilchrist who went down low, mixed it up and attacked the boards when the team needed him to. He finished with a team-high nine boards.
However, as impressed as I was with Kidd-Gilchrist, I’ve got to admit…
4. I Was A Bit Disappointed In Kentucky’s Overall Rebounding: So look, I know Kentucky outrebounded Old Dominion by 10, and got at least seven boards each from Jones, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist. I get that. I also know what I saw with my own two eyes, and what I saw was a team that just wasn’t assertive or aggressive on the glass. Other than Davis (who again, was limited by foul trouble) and Kidd-Gilchrist, nobody seemed willing or interested to mix it up down low. Call me crazy, but I also didn’t really see the spark from Terrence Jones I was expecting either.
Now, it is important to remember a few things. This was a noon tip-off, in a half-empty arena, and the Wildcats had been on the road six straight days. In their defense, I’m sure half the players were more concerned with stuff like “Hmm, I wonder what we’re eating on the charter home,” than "Gee, I wonder how we're going to attack this matchup zone." They are 18 and 19-years-old after all.
While we’re here it should also be mentioned that Kentucky was playing a team that was infinitely more jacked to be there than they were, and had much more to play for and prove. Not to mention that a lot of good teams in college basketball struggle with rebounding this year; rebounding is about effort, and a team knows they're not playing an opponent that’s as talented, it’s easy for the effort to be lacking.
Still, it is something to keep an eye out on, especially if opponents are able to get Davis in foul trouble and out of the game early.
It’s something that’s fixable over time, but won’t be nearly as excusable as the season continues.
5. Back To Davis For A Second: Because my God is that guy a physical freak. I know that every broadcaster, writer, analyst and blogger has already discussed this in-depth, and that you probably need to read another “My God is Anthony Davis skinny” commentary about as much as Bruce Pearl needs another trip to the tanning bed. Still, it really is one thing to discuss it on TV, and it’s quite another to see it first-hand in person. Again, the written word does him no justice. My God is that kid tall. And skinny. I did mention that, right?
Anyway, besides being tall and skinny (it’s true!), I actually liked what I saw from Davis. The foul trouble limited a lot of his playing time (much to my disappointment), but when he was in the game, I was surprised at how comfortable he seemed playing in the post, and guarding bigger defenders. Remember, this is a guy who was basically a point guard until 18 months ago, and now he’s being asked not only to play a completely different position, but is also expected to have a completely different skill-set all together. Think about it. Two years ago Davis was literally a ball-handler on the wing, and now he’s expected to bang bodies down low in the post? Do you have any idea how hard that transition is? Only to his credit, Davis actually seems to be handling it all pretty well. His timing on blocked shots was especially impressive.
In addition, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the coordination the guy has maintained despite the freakish growth spurt (did you hear, he’s really tall!). I just mentioned the shot-blocking ability, but really that was just part of it. What was actually more impressive were the few times that I saw him chase down loose ball, tip-toe the end line, before saving it to a guard to start a fast break. Truthfully most seven-foot centers would’ve either fallen out of bounds or broken an ankle trying to make the play. Yet Davis did that exact thing two or three times, and looked fluid and natural doing it.
It’s scary to think of where he’ll be five or six months from now.
6. The Most Entertaining Part of Yesterday’s Game May Have Been John Calipari Himself: It goes without saying that there are quite a few college basketball atmospheres that are better than Kentucky played in front of this weekend at Mohegan Sun. Ok, I take that back; basically every college basketball atmosphere is better than the one Kentucky played in this weekend. On Sunday the arena was probably about 30 percent full, and the fans who were there were probably 20 percent awake. It had more the feel of a high school exhibition than a major college game.
But while the arena couldn’t have been quieter, in a weird way, it made things more fun. You know, since you could pretty much hear John Calipari screaming at his guys from every corner of the gym. To his credit, Cal coached this one like it was the Saturday night of a Final Four, not a Sunday afternoon at a casino. And I for one, couldn't have been more entertained.
For those who weren't there, what you need to know is that Cal yelled a lot... at pretty much everyone. He yelled at at Kidd-Gilchrist after he gave up an easy defensive bucket. He yelled at Terrence Jones about, well, I’m not exactly what. And Marquis Teague? My God. If Teague were 17 instead of 18, somebody might’ve had to call child protective services. Calipari repeatedly screamed (from literally five feet away) “RUN THE OFFENSE, RUN THE OFFENSE, RUN THE OFFENSE!” which wouldn’t have been so bad… except again, Teague was five feet away and you could hear a pin drop in the arena.
7. Speaking of Marquis Teague…: Well actually, you know what? I’m not going to go there. Anyone who watched yesterday knows that it wasn’t Teague’s best game, or anything close. And since I don’t have any unique insight to add, anything else only seems like it’d be piling on at this point.
What I will say however is that it’s not fair to blame Teague alone for yesterday’s sloppy play, or Kentucky’s sloppy play overall so far this season. Yes he had six ugly- and at times unconscionable- turnovers, but you know what? The rest of his teammates added 15 more turnovers themselves.
And as a matter of fact, that was one big takeaway I had from yesterday: As a team, Kentucky still plays really “young.” They simply had too many turnovers and were simply too careless with the ball, two very common traits of a team which is basically comprised of all freshmen and sophomores.
Above all there was one play specifically that drove me nuts, and made poor John Calipari practically pop a blood vessel on the sideline. It came late in the second half, when Kentucky had finally wrestled away a lead, and seemed to be closing the game out. Right then, right as things were getting comfortable, Kidd-Gilchrist drove the lane and tried to throw an alley-oop to Davis. The ball got tipped, and truthfully, it probably should’ve been a turnover. Luckily Davis recovered (he’s got long arms in case you haven’t heard), and was able to lay it in.
Still, it was no doubt one of those definitive “What the hell was that guy thinking” plays, one that makes you shake your head and realize, “Wow, these guys have a long way to go.”
Speaking of a long way to go…
8. I Feel The Same About Kyle Wiltjer: Watching Kyle Witjer on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think one thing: “I now understand why he didn’t play against Kansas.” For all the things Wiltjer does well (mainly shoot the three), it was very clear watching in person that he was just a step slower than the rest of the Kentucky guys on the court, and really lacked the confidence that his teammates had as well. In specific he looked a bit lost in the half-court offense, and I noticed two or three times where- for lack of a better term- he just “got in the way” of a ball-handler or wing player when Kentucky was trying to run a fast break.
Now to his credit, I will say one thing: The dude did play hard. He hustled, defended relatively well and did his best to attack the glass, especially when he had to play big minutes when Davis got in foul trouble.
Still, there seemed to be something missing, and I’m not entirely sure if it’ll get figured out this year or not. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t play all that much going forward.
9. I Continue To Be Amazed By Big Blue Nation: Ok, so this actually has nothing to do with yesterday’s game itself, but I thought it was interesting.
I’ve got a lot of new Kentucky fans following me on Twitter (thanks to Matt Jones) and decided to take a quick straw poll and them a question. It was “Which team in college basketball scares you the most come March.” Quite frankly, I figured that almost everyone would answer “North Carolina,” you know, since they are the No. 1 team in the country and all.
Well, I couldn’t have been more incorrect. In total I got about 30 responses, and probably 70 percent of those who were polled answered “Syracuse.”
Syracuse? Huh? That team with Scoop Jardine at point guard? Eww.
Except I underestimated just how knowledgeable this fan-base is. That’s because despite the fact that North Carolina is the most talented team in college basketball, and UConn the most athletic besides Kentucky, it’s actually Syracuse- with their matchup zone- that would likely give the Wildcats the most problems. Player for player North Carolina or UConn might match up better with them, but it was Syracuse’s style of play which would give UK the most problems.
And that above all, is why it’s impossible not to love Kentucky fans. Seriously, how many fan bases are even really invested in college basketball at this point? And of those, how many have actually taken the time to consider- at length, mind you- how their team matches up with all the others?
Just one, and that’s Big Blue Nation.
10. Reflecting Back On Sunday, I Can’t Help But Think One Thing Above All Else: This Is John Calipari’s Most Complete Team At Kentucky.
Now don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else in college basketball, this team does need work. Lots of it actually, as evidenced by yesterday’s close score, and as evidenced by everything I’ve already mentioned in this (surprisingly lengthy) article.
You know what though? Most of it (effort, energy on defense, rebounding) can come with practice. The tangible things, like overall basketball skill, athleticism, length- the things that can’t be taught- Kentucky has all those down pat, and will only get better as time goes on.
Most importantly, I saw the 2009-2010 Kentucky team in person, and overall didn’t come away quite as impressed with the overall picture of that team. Yes they were bigger- and probably a bit tougher- in the paint. Yes they had John Wall, a player unlike anyone on this year’s team.
But that team didn’t have the balance or depth that this one has. That team didn’t have shooters like this team does (I know, I don’t need to remind anyone). And that team just didn’t have the overall athleticism and overall “When we decide we want to play defense, really play defense, we will shut you down” ability that this group has. As I was reminded this weekend, that 2010 team won a lot of games, but they also won a lot of games which were closer than people remember. They needed a buzzer-beater from Wall to beat Miami (OH) and barely survived against a lousy Stanford team in some obscure tournament in Cancun.
Point being, this team has a long way to go. It’s also amazing where they already are.
“I know one thing though, I REALLY LIKE MY TEAM.”
That’s a scary thing for the rest of the college basketball world.
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