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.

College Basketball AP Poll: Virginia, Michigan State, Villanova top the Top 25

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1. Virginia (42 first-place votes_
2. Michigan State (19)
3. Villanova (4)
4. Xavier
5. Duke
t-6. Texas Tech
t-6. Gonzaga
8. Kansas
9. Purdue
10. North Carolina
11. Cincinnati
12. Auburn
13. Wichita State
14. Arizona
15. Clemson
16. Ohio State
17. Michigan
18. Rhode Island
19. Tennessee
20. Nevada
21. West Virginia
22. Saint Mary’s
23. Houston
24. Middle Tennessee
25. Florida State

VIDEO: Wichita State celebrates in locker room after win over Cincinnati

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Wichita State went into Cincinnati — well, Northern Kentucky — on Sunday evening and landed their biggest win of the season.

They were fired up about it, as you might imagine.

And their locker room celebrating after the win was, as the kids say, litty:

Here’s the funny part to me: This game wasn’t played at Cincinnati. It wasn’t played at Wichita State. It was played at Northern Kentucky, where the Bearcats are playing their home games while they wait for the renovations on their arena to be completed.

Which means that some poor NKU employee that had nothing to do with either of these two programs had to spend the time cleaning up this mess.

CBT Podcast: Monday Overreactions: Villanova-Xavier, the Big 12 is drunk, the best in the Big Ten is … ?

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Rob Dauster was joined by Eamonn Brennan of The Athletic on today’s show to overreact to everything that happened this weekend, from Villanova pasting Xavier to the insanity that is the Big 12 to what happened in the Big Ten in the last ten days. We also spend a good 30 minutes talking about bubble teams, tournament resumes and some misconceptions with both. The rundown.

OPEN: Bubble Banter. We talk about weird bubble teams and whether or not we like the new Quadrant system.

36:08: Villanova’s win over Xavier and the Big East title race.

45:15: The Big 12 makes no sense and I love it.

58:30: Michigan State deserves the Big Ten title.

Team Of The Week: Houston Cougars

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The Cougars have now won five straight games, but it was the two games they won this week that set the tone for what the rest of their season can be.

On Thursday night, Cincinnati came to down and Houston dropped them, 67-62, despite digging a double-digit hole in the first half. They followed that up by going into North Philadelphia and poleaxing Temple. They were up 34-11 midway through the first half. They won by 21 points. It was never a question.

And as a result, Houston’s bid to the NCAA tournament is no longer a question so long as they avoid losing to Memphis, East Carolina and UConn. And if they truly are an NCAA tournament team, they’ll get that done.

But perhaps the best piece of news is that the Cougars did all this while Rob Gray did not play well. He’s one of the best players in that conference, and the fact that they were able to right Devin Davis and Corey Davis to wins in two of their most important and toughest games of the league slate is significant.

What happens when Rob Gray gets right?

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • WICHITA STATE: Not only did Wichita State land a come-from-behind win over Temple on Thursday night, one where they trailed by 14 points at halftime, but they followed that up by going to Cincinnati and knocking off the then-No. 5 Bearcats.
  • MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans moved into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten due in large part to the fact that they were able to erase a 27-point first half deficit at Northwestern.
  • BAYLOR: The Bears look like they are now heading for the NCAA tournament after landing wins at Texas and at home over Texas Tech on Saturday. Now that Scott Drew’s team is healthy, they look like they belong in the top 25.
  • ST. BONAVENTURE: The Bonnies might have solidified their bid for the NCAA tournament. As long as they don’t do anything dumb the rest of the season, beating Rhode Island at home on Friday night should be enough for them to get in.
  • DUKE: The Blue Devils have now won three straight games after losing Marvin Bagley III to a minor knee sprain, mainly because their defense is now playing at a level that we haven’t seen yet this season. Are the Blue Devils better without Marvin Bagley??? (Hint: No.)

Player Of The Week: Terry Maston, Baylor

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Terry Maston is back from injury and playing the best basketball of his career.

The 6-foot-8 senior was utterly dominant in two critical, close wins this week. It started with 26 points and six boards in a double-overtime win at Texas on Monday night that was something of a play-out game for NCAA tournament purposes.

Then on Saturday, that win was overshadowed. Maston had 24 points and five boards in regular as the Bears knocked off No. 7 Texas Tech for their fifth straight win, and suddenly it looks like Scott Drew’s club will be in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday.

All told, in what will arguably be the most important week of the season for Baylor, Maston scored 50 points, or a total of 38 percent of Baylor’s total scoring output in those two games.

Not bad for a guy that came off the bench in both of those wins.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • GRAYSON ALLEN, Duke: In three games without Marvin Bagley III, Duke is now 3-0 thanks to Grayson Allen averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 42 percent from three. Last week, Duke beating Virginia Tech by 22 points and won at Clemson.
  • CALEB and CODY MARTIN, Nevada: The Wolf Pack picked up two road wins this week, including a win at Boise State that gave them the inside track at the Mountain West regular season title. The twins combined to average 42.5 points, 12.5 boards and 4.0 assists in those two wins.
  • AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA: The Bruins stayed on track to earn a berth into the NCAA tournament with wins over Oregon and Oregon State. Holiday was the star both nights, going for 17 and 10 assists against OSU and following that up with 29 points, six assists and five boards in an overtime win over Oregon.
  • MATT MOBLEY, St. Bonaventure: Mobley averaged 28 points and nine boards as the Bonnies beat La Salle and No. 16 Rhode Island to put themselves in a spot where they can realistically feel good about their chances of getting into the NCAA tournament.
  • DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona: Ayton had one of his best games of the season on Thursday night, going for 25 points, 16 boards, four assists and three blocks as the Wildcats picked off Arizona State on the road.