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Kentucky has ‘a chance to be special’

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I don’t think there is any question who is the most talented team in the country.

It’s Kentucky. When they put it all together, this team is an absolute joy to watch and nightmare to play against. They have size up and down their lineup. They are loaded with athletes. They run the floor. They have shooters that spread the floor and finishers around the rim. They have a point guard that is able to get those guys the ball. Maybe the best measure of just how good this team is is Kyle Wiltjer. He’s a top 20 freshman and he can’t sniff the court this season.

There’s was a stretch of last night’s game where I closed my computer, I put my phone down and I just watched Kentucky play. I sat back and I admired what this team is capable of. They are that good.

The problem?

That Kentucky team only showed up for second half of last night’s game. In the first half, Kentucky looked like a completely different team. They turned the ball over 12 times, six of them coming from their freshman point guard Marquis Teague, and shot just 38.5% from the floor. The problem was offensive execution — far too often, the dribble-drive motion offense that John Calipari preaches broke down into his players trying to go one-on-one.

“We broke off every play,” Calipari said. “I told them after the game that what I’m going to have to start doing is that is you break off a play, you’re coming out. You think its ok that you’re supposed to go right and you go left because you feel like it, you’re coming out.”

“Everybody walked into that game today and they were going to do their own thing, and they did it.”

Its no secret that the key to winning at the collegiate level is recruiting, the ability to identify talented players and bring them into the program. But talent alone doesn’t win games. That’s why Butler was able to make it to the last two national title games. Its why Memphis finished fourth in Conference USA last season. Its why the 2010-11 Kentucky team was able to make the Final Four and not the much-more talented 2009-2010 Kentucky team.

“Everybody thinks talent wins,” Calipari said. “No. Talented players that play together win.”

“The message I gave them yesterday was ‘we don’t compete with each other’. We compete with the other team. We push each other and we challenge each other, but we complete each other. We all do what we do and we play off one another and we complete the team. We don’t compete with each other.”

That’s not the only issue that this Kentucky team has. This is a young group. Of the eight players that played last night, four were freshmen and two were sophomores. The two seniors on the roster? They both came off the bench. Its not difficult to foresee composure being a problem from this group.

Two incidents stuck out last night. In the first half, Teague just absolutely melted down. Six turnovers is way too high for a point guard, and Teague had that number in the first half. He was over-penetrating, he was throwing bad passes and he was getting himself caught in the air without anywhere to go with the ball. With every mistake, Teague tried harder to make up for it. Coach Cal even moved Teague to the off-guard spot, allowing Doron Lamb to handle the ball, but that didn’t make much of a difference. Teague’s disastrous first half was a major reason Kentucky found themselves down. The Wildcats were lucky that performance came against Kansas and not North Carolina; they could have dug a hole too deep to get out of.

Teague isn’t the first Calipari point guard to deal with these issues, however. Brandon Knight had the same problem at the start of last season. John Wall did as well, although he was able to mask his turnover problem by hitting game-winner after game-winner.

Then midway through the second half, Terrence Jones was knocked to the ground by Thomas Robinson, who regained his balance by straddling Jones. Instead of stepping to the side, Robinson walked over Jones, similar to the way Scottie Pippen walked over Patrick Ewing in the 1992 NBA Playoffs. Jones’ reaction was to get up and try and get into Robinson’s face. He wasn’t alone, as the rest of his team rushed over and started some pushing and shoving.

While somewhat justified — I probably would have done the same thing if I were him — the incident shined a light on another potential issue for the Wildcats: composure. What’s going to happen if Jones catches an inadvertent elbow from John Henson? What happens if Kidd-Gilchrist, who was the most vocal when the two teams came together last night, gets knocked into the scorer’s table by Chane Behanan? How will the Wildcats react? Will it take them out of their game? Will a punch get thrown?

When Terrence Jones — a kid who sulked his way out of the lottery at the end of last year, preens after every made shot and walked away from a car accident to avoid the punishment — is the leader for a young team, having concerns about composure and handling adversity is certainly warranted.

“They think they’re in Orlando,” Calipari said, referring to where the AAU national tournament is held, “and they’ve got another game tomorrow morning and one that afternoon.”

“Now they’re talking to the other team, you can’t do that here. You want to talk, but you want to talk to your team. They’re young. They don’t know better.”

There is one common thread in all of the criticisms about Kentucky: youth. This team is young. They are freshmen and sophomores. They will learn. They’ll understand that at this level of basketball, the game isn’t all 1-on-1. They’ll learn how to fit into an offense and how to play a role on defense. They’ll learn what is a good shot and what is a bad shot. They’ll learn how to walk away from a confrontation.

And with the amount of talent that this group has on their roster, if they learn it by the end of this year, watch out.

“I don’t want to say that [this is my most talented team] because I’ve had some pretty good teams,” Cal said, “but this team has a chance to be special.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

No. 5 Xavier stumbles at Creighton, lose 70-54

Creighton's Cole Huff (13) and Toby Hegner, left, guard Xavier's Jalen Reynolds (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Mo Watson went for a career-high 32 points, seven boards and five assists as Creighton jumped out to an early 21-4 lead and never looked back, beating No. 5 Xavier, 70-54, in Omaha on Tuesday night.

 

It was a massive win for the Bluejays, who still have an outside shot at earning an at-large bid this season. (We wrote all about that here.)

As well as Creighton played, the bigger story here may actually be Xavier, who lost for just the third time this season; they had been the only top ten team with just two losses to their name.

The issue for the Musketeers tonight was two-fold, but they both are a symptom of what could be an issue down the road for this team: Xavier doesn’t really have a true point guard.

They certainly didn’t have anyone to stop Watson. By the second half, they had essentially asked Reynolds, who was playing the middle of their 1-3-1 zone to matchup with Watson. It was weird but was actually somewhat effective.

The Musketeers also started out ice cold from the floor, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and those misses led to leak outs from Bluejays, who got layups and open threes in transition to build that 17 point lead. Once Xavier got behind, it turned into scramble mode for Xavier. They forced shots early in the clock and didn’t start pounding the ball into the paint until it was too late. What they needed was someone to be able to settle things, to ensure that offensive would get initiated and sets would get executed when they were able to get the lead down to single digits.

That 1-for-19 shooting performance from beyond the arc certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the fact that they got just nine field goals all game from players not named James Farr or Jalen Reynolds. The most frustrating part for head coach Chris Mack? They had good shots. It wasn’t like Creighton took away everything that Xavier wanted to do.

The kids just had one of those nights where nothing went down.

Those happen.

And when you combine them with a total inability to contain the opposing team’s point guard, what you get is a 16 point loss on the road against a team that was desperate to get a good win.

Gill’s 16, ‘D’ lead No. 7 Virginia past Virginia Tech, 67-49

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AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Anthony Gill scored 16 points and No. 7 Virginia turned the tables on state rival Virginia Tech with a 67-49 victory Tuesday night, the Cavaliers’ seventh straight.

Isaiah Wilkins added a career-best 14 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 12 for the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Virginia avenged a 70-68 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on Jan. 4 in what rates as their worst performance of the season, and extended their winning streak at John Paul Jones Arena to 17 games.

Freshman Justin Robinson scored 16 points and classmate Chris Clarke had 11 in his first action for the Hokies (13-12, 5-7) since breaking his right foot in late December. Virginia Tech’s top two scorers, Zach LeDay (16.0 ppg) and Seth Allen (14.5), were limited to seven and six points, respectively, in part because of foul trouble.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team wasn’t ready to play when it lost to the Hokies earlier, but they have been surging of late and were focused from the outset. They were credited with assists and 14 of their first 15 baskets and forced 10 turnovers in the first half; they forced just eight in the last meeting of the teams.

For most of the game, the Hokies had more turnovers than field goals.

The Cavaliers led 32-20 at halftime and extended their advantage to 47-29 on a three-point play by Mike Tobey with 12:11 remaining. It capped an 11-4 run for Virginia, during which LeDay was whistled for his fourth foul. On Virginia’s next trip down court, it got the ball to Gill inside and LeDay basically backed off and let him score, quickly earning a spot on the bench.

The Cavaliers’ lead never dipped into single digits again.

The Hokies had just eight turnovers and outscored Virginia 26-6 off turnovers in their first meeting. This time, Virginia Tech had 10 turnovers by halftime and the Cavaliers had already turned them into 15 points. Virginia Tech finished with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers.

Already leading 9-6, Virginia got scoring from eight players in a 23-8 run that spanned about 8 1/2 minutes.

Gill started it with a dunk, Brogdon hit a 3-pointer, London Perrantes had a four-point play and Wilkins finished it with two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 32-14 lead with 2:06 left in the half. They didn’t score again, and the Hokies closed within 32-20 by halftime.

TIP-INS

Virginia Tech: The Hokies shot 57.1 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half of their 70-68 victory against Virginia on Jan. 4. … Virginia Tech’s starting five totaled four points in the first half.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have held four consecutive opponents to 50 points or fewer.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech plays at No. 12 Miami next Wednesday.

Virginia plays at Duke on Saturday.

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The AP’s college basketball page: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org