From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.
BROOKLYN — Attend enough of John Calipari’s press conferences, and one thing you’ll realize is that the man is media savvy enough that, should he decide his coaching career isn’t lucrative enough, he can open up his own PR firm.
He’s like a politician, and not in the derogatory way. He has a point that he wants to make, an idea that he is trying to drive home, and he knows how he is going to answer every question that he gets asked before he sets foot in that room.
With this group, one of Cal’s major talking points is that the overwhelming youth that he has on his roster means that this group is going to be a work in progress for a long time. The team that we see on the floor now is different than the team that we’re going to see when SEC play kicks off in January. The team that we see in January is going to be different than the group that takes the floor in March. This is true with every team, to a point, but it’s exacerbated in Lexington. There is no team in the country with a learning curve as steep as Kentucky’s.
“This is a freshmen team,” Cal said after Sunday night’s 79-65 win over Providence. Yes, every team that he’s had in his tenure with the ‘Cats has been a “freshmen team”, but this year’s group doesn’t have the veterans that other teams have had. There is no Patrick Patterson or Darius Miller. Josh Harrellson ain’t walking through that door. “We’re basically doing it with all freshmen. I’ve never done this before.”
The motto for this group? “What got you here won’t get you there.” What they did in high school and AAU ball, relying on their length and athleticism and God-given gifts, isn’t enough when every at this level has comparable size and leaping ability. He’s working with a blank canvas, and while part of the reason that he harps on this topic is to diffuse Big Blue Nation’s angst and to show his players that he has their backs publicly, this isn’t entirely the Calipari-spin.
He team is young, and his players do have a lot to learn.
Which means they have a lot of room to grow, and tonight, we saw some of that growth.
Kentucky knocked off a good Providence team in fairly impressive fashion on Sunday, and they did it despite the fact that Julius Randle had an off night and Andrew Harrison was largely relegated to the bench as he dealt with some foul trouble.
Instead, we saw Willie Cauley-Stein put together arguably his most impressive game as a Wildcat, finishing with 15 points, eight boards and nine blocks. Kentucky’s elite athleticism makes them potentially a deadly defensive team, and knowing that they have an eraser at the rim will only make the perimeter players that much more confident when pressuring on the perimeter defensively. This also doubled as one of Aaron Harrison’s best games to date, as he finished with 15 points and four assists on 7-for-9 shooting. He played the point quite a bit while his brother was on the bench, while also switching onto Providence’s high-scoring lead guard Bryce Cotton in the second half.
“Aaron Harrison is the one that changed the game,” Cal said.
Perhaps most importantly, however, we saw glimpses of the Wildcats starting to ‘get it’, starting to understand the way they have to play if they truly want to be a national title contender come March.
Despite playing a team with a front line that could match them inch-for-inch, Kentucky continually pounded the ball into the paint, either off the drive or off the dribble. Randle was off, finishing 4-for-10 from the floor and missing three free throws, but he added four assists, showing an ever-improving ability to pass out of a double-team. Even Cauley-Stein chipped in with a couple of jump-hooks of his own.
The stat that most signifies Kentucky’s dedication to the interior is that they only shot eight threes on the night, making six of them. Kentucky was averaging more than 17 threes attempted per game, with their two designated shooters taking more than half of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc despite the fact that they were both shooting under 29% from deep.
Kentucky still has plenty of room to grow, and, as of now, they are far from a finished product.
But you can see little things changing, improving, every time they take the court.
And if the Wildcats can continue this trend?
“When those kids mature,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said, “they can be scary. They can be really, really scary.”