CHICAGO — Big Blue Nation’s traveling posse will head to O’Hare or Midway or back down I-65 to Lexington disappointed on Wednesday morning.
The first showing of Kentucky’s world famous recruiting class on a national stage did not exactly go as planned, as the No. 2 Wildcats took a generally hard-fought, but at times mighty frustrating, 78-74 loss to No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic.
On paper, the loss looks bad, as Kentucky went just 20-for-36 from the free throw line and finished with eight assists and 17 turnovers. Throw in a 4-for-20 performance from beyond the arc, which includes a scorching 0-for-9 in the second half, and, well, that’s just not pretty.
That’s also the point.
Think about it like this: Kentucky probably could not have played worse in the first 15 minutes. They were down 10-0 in the first four minutes. They were down by 15 with five minutes left in the half. Michigan State’s two All-Americans, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, were on fire. It looked like we were primed for a beatdown to kick things off in the United Center.
“That coulda been 25,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game. “It shoulda been 20 at half.”
But it wasn’t.
For all the issues that the Wildcats had on Tuesday, for everything that went wrong in the first 20 minutes, Kentucky battled all the way back. They tied the game in the second half, erasing a 12 point halftime deficit despite missing 12 free throws in the final 20 minutes. They missed open three after open three, yet continued to slowly chip away at Michigan State’s lead. Despite a couple of seemingly back-breaking turnovers and momentum-killing bad shots, the only thing that could finally stop Kentucky’s surge was the final buzzer.
They did all that against a very well-coached, veteran Michigan State team with two future first round picks and a senior point guard playing his best game in recent memory that just so happened to enter this game as the No. 2 team in the country.
And all of that came in the first game that most of these guys have ever played at this level and with this much national attention.
Do you realize just how impressive that is?
“This kind of tournament is great for college basketball,” Cal said. “It is terrific for the teams. It’s just tough for a really young team. I knew we’d start that way.”
“They’ve never been in an environment like this. When guys get that, they get into themselves a little bit. It gets discombobulated. We just did stuff that shot ourselves in the foot. But that’s what kids like this are going to do.”
The bottom line is this: Julius Randle is a beast. He had 27 points and 13 boards and thoroughly dominated any and all of Michigan State’s big men in the second half, when he had 23 points and nine boards to spur the comeback. Randle did have eight turnovers, but that comes with the territory. This was the first time in Randle’s career he’s faced a team that is this talented and this well-coached in how to double-team the post. He’ll not only learn how to read where the double is coming from, he’ll develop a post move beyond just a simple spin — which was probably responsible for seven of those eight turnovers. 27 and 13 on an off-night? Yikes.
Randle wasn’t the only guy that showed promise. James Young had 15 points in the first half and 19 on the game. Alex Poythress finished with seven points, 12 boards (seven offensive) and three blocks. Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson did some good things when they were on the floor.
You weren’t being lied to when you were told that there is a ridiculous amount of talent on Kentucky’s roster, and it’s only going to get better as the season progresses.
The key, however, is going to be how the Harrison twins progress. Aaron, the shooting guard, was 1-for-7 from the floor. Andrew, the point guard, had 11 points and three assists, but committed four turnovers, took a couple of bad shots down the stretch and had noticeably poor body language. Kentucky needs that duo to provide leadership. Coach Cal needs them to be floor generals, facilitating offense and getting the Wildcats into their sets. He needs them to understand that their best offense is when the ball goes into the post.
We’re not quite there yet, which is part of the reason that Kentucky has not quite reached their potential yet.
The best news to come out of Tuesday? What Kentucky has more than enough of is time.
“I’ve got four months to get this right,” Cal said.