Kentucky isn’t there yet. They looked sloppy and careless at times and are still learning how to play with each other, but it was evident in the Wildcats’ 89-57 victory over UNC-Asheville that John Calipari has a special group on his hands.
Kentucky didn’t need to beat the Bulldogs by 32 points in order for the nation to recognize that the Harrison twins, Julius Randle, and the other future NBA players on the squad are a special group but, if nothing else, tonight reaffirmed that notion.
Recall last year’s Kentucky team that had a bevy of talent and future pro players on the roster. Expectations were high in the preseason, perhaps unreasonably so, and the Wildcats fluttered throughout the year thanks to inconsistent play at point guard and Nerlens Noel suffering a torn ACL midway through the season. That team never seemed to click, and while it’s still extremely early for the current team, the chemistry seems to be there.
Yes, the sloppy play for much of the first half that saw Kentucky head to the locker room with an unimpressive 41-31 lead needs correcting. Yes, missing 18 free throws is a legitimate concern. And yes, whether freshman point guard Andrew Harrison will be able to shoulder the load of leading this team or not is in question.
However, what we saw tonight was a team that seemingly enjoys playing with each other and has fun. It sounds juvenile for a team to “have fun” out on the floor, but far too often last season that appeared to be an issue.
The star of the night was freshman Julius Randle, who poured in 23 points and corralled 15 rebounds. There is no doubt he will be a menace in the paint throughout the season, but what was so encouraging about Randle’s night was drilling 11-13 from the line. He’s going to receive double and triple teams and he is going to be sent to the line a fair amount, especially with the new defensive rules. If he can hit 75% of his free throws or better, he becomes that much more of a threat.
Conversely, there has to be a cause for concern that the rest of the Wildcats combined to shoot 19-35. Free throw shooting has bit John Calipari’s teams in the past — remember some of his teams at Memphis — and that’s an area needing work.
One can only learn so much after blowing UNC-Asheville out at home. Kentucky’s game against a talented Michigan State team next Tuesday will be a good barometer of just how far along the Wildcats are — how the youthful talent on Kentucky maintains their composure against a veteran Spartan team will be telling.
One of the primary questions of this team over the summer months was if Cal could get these future NBA players to all buy-in. Tonight was a step in that direction.