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Kentucky’s a work-in-progress, but we can see the progress being made

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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.”

South Dakota State gets two commits

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Tuesday was a busy and productive one for South Dakota State on the recruiting trail.

The Jackrabbits secured two 2017 commitments from the state of Wisconsin in Ryan Krueger and Alex Arians, a source tells NBCSports.com.

Krueger is a 6-foot-5 wing player from New London, Wisc. while Arians is a 6-foot-4 guard from Madison, Wisc., who also held an offer from Wright State, which is coached by former SDSU coach Scott Nagy. Both players spend their summers playing for the Wisconsin Swing grassroots program.

The pair make it a trio of commits for the Jackrabbits in 2017 with another Wisconsinite, Alou Dillon, pledging to first-year Jackrabbits coach T.J. Otzelberger, himself a Wisconsin native, earlier this summer.

South Dakota State went 26-8 last year and the bulk of the team that made the NCAA tournament last year, including sophomore Mike Daum, who led the team in scoring and rebounding as a freshman.

Incoming Gator freshman ineligible for upcoming season

Mike White
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Florida will need to wait a year before seeing 6-foot-11 recruit Gorjok Gak playing games for the Gators.

The NCAA ruled that the incoming freshman will be able to enroll at Florida this year and practice with the team, but will be ineligible for games this season, the school announced Tuesday.

Should he meet all his progress marks during his freshman year, he’ll have three seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2017-18.

Gak’s eligibility issue centered on his playing games during his postgraduate year at Victory Rock Prep, according to his coach there.

“Following his graduate year from Australia, he was supposed to play from December to December,” Loren Jackson told the Gainesville Sun, “but instead played from December until the following May.”

Gak originally signed with Oklahoma State, but de-committed following Travis Ford’s firing in Stillwater this past spring. Gak averaged 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds last season at Victory Rock in Bradenton, Fla.

Florida went 21-15 last season under first-year coach Mike White.

Video: Coach K talks Team USA with Dan Patrick

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Team USA has blown through its competition in its first two exhibition games ahead of next month’s Olympics in Rio De Janeiro with wins over Argentina and China by a combined a combined 96 points.

Tonight, they’ll have a rematch against China, which they defeated 106-57 on Sunday, but it will also serve as the unofficial debut of Kevin Durant in front of his new hometown fans with the game taking place at the home of the Golden State Warriors, Oracle Arena, in Oakland.

“Excited for Kevin tonight to make his debut in front of the Golden State fans,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said Tuesday on the Dan Patrick Show. “He got a great reception (Monday) at a function. He was, as he should be, warmly welcomed.”

The team has been together since July 18 in the run-up to its first Olympic contest on Aug. 6 against China. For Krzyzewski, a couple of players have made an impression already.

“You see these guys on TV,” the Duke coach said, “but I don’t get a chance to see them in person. (Clipper) DeAndre Jordan is such a good player. A great athlete, a great guy. To see him run, defend, holy mackerel. He’ s really good.

“I haven’t seen Paul George in two years when he had that horrific (leg) injury in Las Vegas at one of our camps, and he’s so darn good. On defense, tremendous.”

It’s on the defensive side of the floor that Coach K believes his team can really make its mark even with the incredible collection of offensive talent the roster has.

“We’re very athletic so defensively we could be a very good defensive team,” he said. “We’ve shown a willingness to want to do that in the first two games.”

As usual, Team USA is the prohibitive favorite to bring back gold for the third consecutive Olympics, which will be Coach K’s last at the helm after taking over after the 2004 bronze medal debacle.

“I’m excited about the team,” he said. “It’s a short time. to see our guys working so hard and they get along so well, I’m excited about the team we might be in Rio. We’ll use tonight to get a little bit better.

“I kind of have the blinders on. You only have a short time. It’s a little over a month, and we want to win the gold medal in Rio.”

Rose’s transfer to BYU becomes official

Ge'Lawn Guyn, L.J. Rose
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His commitment came more than a month ago, but L.J. Rose’s transfer to BYU became official Tuesday.

The former Houston guard was officially announced as an immediately-eligible graduate transfer by BYU on Tuesday. He’ll bring much needed help to a Cougars backcourt that lost Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer to graduation and Jordan Chatman and Jack Toolson to transfers.

“L.J. will add great experience and talent to our guard line,” BYU coach Dave Rose said in a statement released by BYU. “We’re excited about the leadership he will bring on the court and in the locker room. He will make us a deeper and more versatile team.”

As a junior, L.J. Rose averaged 9.8 points and 5.3 assists, but a foot injury limited him to just two games last season and allowed him to receive a medical redshirt and the opportunity to be a graduate transfer for his final collegiate season. He’ll be a big part of BYU’s attempt to build on last year’s 26-11 season as a former top-100 recruit, who began his career at Baylor, on a team in need of an infusion of talent after absorbing the losses from last year’s roster.

His father, Lynden, Sr., was a teammate of BYU coach Dave Rose at Houston during the program’s Phi Slama Jama era.

UCLA loses key forward to professional ranks

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 02:  Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks steals the ball from Jonah Bolden #43 of the UCLA Bruins during a 76-68 Ducks win at Pauley Pavilion on March 2, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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UCLA announced on Tuesday afternoon that Jonah Bolden will be forgoing his college eligibility to turn professional.

“Jonah Bolden has informed the coaching staff that he has opted to play professionally this season,” the release said.

Bolden is a versatile, 6-foot-10 forward with some NBA potential. In his only season playing with the Bruins, he averaged 4.6 points and 4.8 boards while starting 11 games. His ability on the defensive end of the floor was something the UCLA staff was counting on this season.

A sophomore this past season, Bolden was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA as a freshman, meaning that he was allowed to be on scholarship and in class but could not play during the 2014-15 season.

He had two seasons of eligibility remaining. Without Bolden, T.J Leaf will likely be counted on to play more minutes at the four.