Kentucky has ‘a chance to be special’


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.

College Basketball Talk’s Top 25: Xavier, Syracuse, Texas A&M are big winners

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
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At this point in the season, I think it is still too early to solely base rankings off of on-the-court results. That’s why you’re going to find North Carolina higher in this poll than likely anywhere else on the internet. Until we see what the Tar Heels look like with Marcus Paige — which, mind you, could happen on Tuesday night when they host Maryland — I’m not sure I’m ready to drop them, even for a team that looks as good as Michigan State or Kansas.

The biggest risers of the week: Xavier and Syracuse, who both won big tournaments over the Thanksgiving holiday. They also both happened to knock off rivals in the process, as the Musketeers blew out Dayton while the Orange knocked off UConn.

1. Kentucky (6-0, LW: No. 1): Kentucky got a real scare over the weekend, as Tyler Ulis hyper-extended his elbow against South Florida. He appears to be just fine.

2. Maryland (6-0, LW: No. 2): The Terps have not looked great early on this season, but they’re going to get a real test on Tuesday when they visit UNC.

3. North Carolina (5-1, LW: No. 3): Here’s to hoping Marcus Paige is healthy when Maryland comes to visit this week.

4. Michigan State (7-0, LW: No. 4): Denzel Valentine has been sensational this season, but the most impressive part of Michigan State’s win over Providence on Sunday was that they did it while Valentine was in foul trouble and struggling to shoot the ball.

5. Kansas (4-1, LW: No. 6): The Jayhawks had a pretty good week. They won Maui, they blew out a good Vanderbilt team, Wayne Selden showed up and Cheick Diallo got eligible. I hope Bill Self bought some lottery tickets.

6. Villanova (6-0, LW: No. 5): I really like the Wildcats this year, I do, but I dropped them a spot for two reasons: 1. I thought Kansas was better entering the season and the Jayhawks looked terrific this week in Maui, before Cheick Diallo played, and 2. Villanova hasn’t beaten anyone of note yet. Next Monday they get Oklahoma. We’ll know then.

7. Iowa State (5-0, LW: No. 7): The Cyclones are 5-0 with wins over three high-major programs, but their best win may be the win over Chattanooga. I think we’ll really get a feel for how good this team next month, when, in a 12-day stretch, they get Iowa, Northern Iowa and Cincinnati on the road.

8. Oklahoma (4-0, LW: No. 8): The Sooners put a whooping on Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, the kind of performance that made it very clear Oklahoma is a contender this season and Wisconsin is not. Buddy Hield has been terrific, but so has big man Ryan Spangler.

9. Duke (6-1, LW: No. 10): The loss to Kentucky continues to look like the aberration in Duke’s early season schedule, as they rolled over Utah State and Yale this week. The big news: Luke Kennard has finally found his rhythm, as he scored 22 points and went 4-for-5 from the floor on Sunday.

10. Virginia (5-1, LW: No. 11): Virginia has won four straight since their loss at GW, scoring at least 80 points in every game and never giving up more than 66. It’s not the stiffest of competition, but it should go to show you (like I said at the time) that the loss at GW said more about GW than Virginia.

11. Xavier (7-0, LW: No. 21)
12. Purdue (6-0, LW: No. 15)
13. Vanderbilt (5-1, LW: No. 16)
14. Miami (5-1, LW: No. 9)
15. Syracuse (6-0, LW: UR)
16. Texas A&M (6-1, LW: UR)
17. Gonzaga (4-1, LW: No. 17)
18. Oregon (5-0, LW: No. 25)
19. Cincinnati (7-0, LW: No. 20)
20. Baylor (4-1, LW: No. 22)
21. Butler (4-1, LW: No. 23)
22. UConn (4-2, LW: No. 18)
23. Providence (6-1, LW: UR)
24. West Virginia (6-0, LW: UR)
25. SMU (4-0, LW: UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 12 Cal, No. 13 Arizona, No. 14 Indiana, No. 19 Notre Dame, No. 24 Wichita State

WEEKLY AWARDS: Denzel Valentine’s big week, Kansas makes a statement

Denzel Valentine
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

In the title game of the Wooden Legacy, a game that was billed as a matchup between the two best players in college basketball — Valentine and Kris Dunn — Valentine was downright bad …

… by his standards. He finished with “just” 17 points, six assists and five boards. I say “just” because, in the previous two games of the tournament, the Spartan superstar averaged 30.5 points, 10.0 boards and 8.0 assists. He’s been, hands down, the best player in college basketball this season, and that didn’t change this week.


  • Ben Bentil, Providence: Kris Dunn is the guy that is going to get all the national praise, but it was Bentil’s emergence that was critical for the Friars. He averaged 21.7 points and 6.0 boards in three games in the Wooden Legacy, carrying PC when Dunn was battling foul issues.
  • Wayne Selden, Kansas: The highlight of Selden’s week was scoring 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting in the Maui title game win over No. 19 Vanderbilt. For the week, he averaged 19.3 points and shot 12-for-17 from three.
  • Justin Robinson, Monmouth: Robinson averaged 25.7 points in three games for Monmouth at the Advocare Invitational. The Hawks beat No. 17 Notre Dame and USC in the process, only losing to Dayton by three.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Remember when Justin Jackson was struggling? He averaged 21.5 points, 9.0 boards and 5.0 assists in wins over Northwestern and Kansas State. That came on the heels of a 25-point performance in the loss at Northern Iowa.
  • Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Ellenson notched three straight double-doubles for the Golden Eagles this week, which included 16 points and 11 boards in a win over Ben Simmons and LSU.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas headed out to Maui as a team that many weren’t really sure what to make of. They looked good against Michigan State for 30 minutes, then they blew that game as Denzel Valentine went bananas. They had as much depth as anyone in the country, but Brannen Greene was suspended, Cheick Diallo was ineligible and Wayne Selden was the most notable of a handful of talented players that had been somewhere between inconsistent and ineffective this year.

That all changed in Maui — well, other than Greene’s suspension — as Kansas rolled over Chaminade, UCLA and Vanderbilt to bring home the tournament title. Blowing out Chaminade was to be expected. But beating down a talented UCLA team? Dominating a very good Vanderbilt squad? That’s the Kansas we’ve been hoping to see show up for a few years now. The question is whether or not it’s sustainable, and at least on paper, it appears to be. Selden’s shooting percentages will come back to earth, but his raw numbers are less important than his confidence and aggressiveness. Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham are going to continue to take pressure off of each other in the back court. Perry Ellis isn’t going anywhere.

I questioned whether or not Kansas was truly one of the nation’s elite when the season started. I think they answered that question for me.


  • Xavier: The Musketeers not only won the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, they blew out in-state — and former Atlantic 10 — rival Dayton in the finals.
  • Syracuse: The Orange are going to be a factor in the ACC this season. How much? I don’t know. But after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis by knocking off No. 18 UConn and No. 25 Texas A&M, it’s clear they’re going to be involved all season.
  • Northeastern: The Huskies picked up a road win against No. 15 Miami on this buzzer-beating jumper.
  • Arkansas-Little Rock: The Trojans picked up their second huge road win of the year, going into Tulsa and knocking off the Golden Hurricane. They’re now 5-0 on the season, having also won at SDSU.
  • Tournament winners: West Virginia knocked off Richmond and San Diego State to bring home the Las Vegas Invitational title, No. 24 Cincinnati beat Nebraska and George Washington in the Barclays Center Classic and Marquette knocked off LSU and Arizona State to win the Legends Classic.


Tuesday: No. 2 Maryland at No. 9 North Carolina, 9:30 p.m.
Wednesday: Butler at No. 24 Cincinnati, 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday: Louisville at No. 3 Michigan State, 7:15 p.m.
Wednesday: No. 13 Indiana at No. 6 Duke, 9:15 p.m.
Saturday: No. 11 Arizona at No. 10 Gonzaga, 3:15 p.m.