ATLANTA – This wasn’t how the season was supposed to begin.
Coming off of a national title and with a roster made up of yet another ungodly recruiting class, this season was supposed to be proof that John Calipari had built the Kentucky program into a dynasty. They weren’t supposed to struggle against a borderline top 25 team in Maryland while watching Alex Len torch twin towers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. And they certainly weren’t supposed to get dropped by arch-nemesis Duke while allowing a beat up and out-of-shape Seth Curry got for 23 points.
But six days into the season, that’s precisely where we find ourselves after the Blue Devils hung on to win a scintillating, 75-68 slugfest in the nightcap of the Champions Classic.
Patience may be a virtue, but it’s not a trait that’s in high supply in Big Blue Nation.
It is, however, a state of mind that Kentucky fans are going to have to come to grips with, because as of right now, this team is not a national title contender yet. I emphasize ‘right now’ and ‘yet’ for a reason, because they will get there. They will improve as the season progresses.
“We’re still trying to figure out our team,” Calipari said after the game. “It’s all new to this team. We’re trying to figure out how we’re playing. We don’t play hard enough yet. We don’t compete on every possession yet. We don’t go after every rebound yet. We don’t know how to finish off games yet. We haven’t really figured out totally how we’re going to play.”
This is one of Cal’s more interesting rosters simply because nothing about it is standard. When his best five players are on the floor, he has two seven-foot centers (Noel and Cauley-Stein) playing with a guy who is ideally suited to be a four (Alex Poythress) and a pair of guards (Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow) who aren’t exactly known for their shooting ability. If you factor Kyle Wiltjer into the mix, than you’re including a player whose athleticism and defensive ability doesn’t exactly make him a perfect fit with the rest of this group.
Perhaps the most important note that needs to be made about Tuesday night’s game is that Harrow didn’t play. “We need him,” Calipari said of Harrow. “It hurt us today. It’s obvious.” Kentucky’s point guard play consisted of former walk-on Jarrod Polson and out-of-position Goodwin and Julius Mays. And Goodwin actually looked pretty good in the role, resembling Tyreke Evans with his aggressiveness and athleticism. But it certainly wasn’t ideal; Duke made their run when Kentucky had about three or four horrendous offensive possessions in a row.
“We had about three spells of a minute and a half where we did something dumb on our end and, like what a good team is going to do, they capitalized,” Cal said. “There were probably two or three spells of a minute or a minute and a half that cost us the game.”
And it’s not just the players that need to figure out how to play together. Calipari needs to learn this group and what situations he can put them into.
“The only guy I needed to get in there more was Willie,” Cal said. “I didn’t know if I could put him back in there and he’d be ok, because he missed a shot and he missed a rebound and he fumbled a ball back-to-back. I don’t know him well enough yet. Do I take him out and put him back in or is he rattled? This isn’t the game to figure that out.”
Kentucky will get there eventually. They’ll make plenty of noise once the calender turns.
But until then, have patience.