I don’t think there is any question who is the most talented team in the country.
It’s Kentucky. When they put it all together, this team is an absolute joy to watch and nightmare to play against. They have size up and down their lineup. They are loaded with athletes. They run the floor. They have shooters that spread the floor and finishers around the rim. They have a point guard that is able to get those guys the ball. Maybe the best measure of just how good this team is is Kyle Wiltjer. He’s a top 20 freshman and he can’t sniff the court this season.
There’s was a stretch of last night’s game where I closed my computer, I put my phone down and I just watched Kentucky play. I sat back and I admired what this team is capable of. They are that good.
That Kentucky team only showed up for second half of last night’s game. In the first half, Kentucky looked like a completely different team. They turned the ball over 12 times, six of them coming from their freshman point guard Marquis Teague, and shot just 38.5% from the floor. The problem was offensive execution — far too often, the dribble-drive motion offense that John Calipari preaches broke down into his players trying to go one-on-one.
“We broke off every play,” Calipari said. “I told them after the game that what I’m going to have to start doing is that is you break off a play, you’re coming out. You think its ok that you’re supposed to go right and you go left because you feel like it, you’re coming out.”
“Everybody walked into that game today and they were going to do their own thing, and they did it.”
Its no secret that the key to winning at the collegiate level is recruiting, the ability to identify talented players and bring them into the program. But talent alone doesn’t win games. That’s why Butler was able to make it to the last two national title games. Its why Memphis finished fourth in Conference USA last season. Its why the 2010-11 Kentucky team was able to make the Final Four and not the much-more talented 2009-2010 Kentucky team.
“Everybody thinks talent wins,” Calipari said. “No. Talented players that play together win.”
“The message I gave them yesterday was ‘we don’t compete with each other’. We compete with the other team. We push each other and we challenge each other, but we complete each other. We all do what we do and we play off one another and we complete the team. We don’t compete with each other.”
That’s not the only issue that this Kentucky team has. This is a young group. Of the eight players that played last night, four were freshmen and two were sophomores. The two seniors on the roster? They both came off the bench. Its not difficult to foresee composure being a problem from this group.
Two incidents stuck out last night. In the first half, Teague just absolutely melted down. Six turnovers is way too high for a point guard, and Teague had that number in the first half. He was over-penetrating, he was throwing bad passes and he was getting himself caught in the air without anywhere to go with the ball. With every mistake, Teague tried harder to make up for it. Coach Cal even moved Teague to the off-guard spot, allowing Doron Lamb to handle the ball, but that didn’t make much of a difference. Teague’s disastrous first half was a major reason Kentucky found themselves down. The Wildcats were lucky that performance came against Kansas and not North Carolina; they could have dug a hole too deep to get out of.
Teague isn’t the first Calipari point guard to deal with these issues, however. Brandon Knight had the same problem at the start of last season. John Wall did as well, although he was able to mask his turnover problem by hitting game-winner after game-winner.
Then midway through the second half, Terrence Jones was knocked to the ground by Thomas Robinson, who regained his balance by straddling Jones. Instead of stepping to the side, Robinson walked over Jones, similar to the way Scottie Pippen walked over Patrick Ewing in the 1992 NBA Playoffs. Jones’ reaction was to get up and try and get into Robinson’s face. He wasn’t alone, as the rest of his team rushed over and started some pushing and shoving.
While somewhat justified — I probably would have done the same thing if I were him — the incident shined a light on another potential issue for the Wildcats: composure. What’s going to happen if Jones catches an inadvertent elbow from John Henson? What happens if Kidd-Gilchrist, who was the most vocal when the two teams came together last night, gets knocked into the scorer’s table by Chane Behanan? How will the Wildcats react? Will it take them out of their game? Will a punch get thrown?
When Terrence Jones — a kid who sulked his way out of the lottery at the end of last year, preens after every made shot and walked away from a car accident to avoid the punishment — is the leader for a young team, having concerns about composure and handling adversity is certainly warranted.
“They think they’re in Orlando,” Calipari said, referring to where the AAU national tournament is held, “and they’ve got another game tomorrow morning and one that afternoon.”
“Now they’re talking to the other team, you can’t do that here. You want to talk, but you want to talk to your team. They’re young. They don’t know better.”
There is one common thread in all of the criticisms about Kentucky: youth. This team is young. They are freshmen and sophomores. They will learn. They’ll understand that at this level of basketball, the game isn’t all 1-on-1. They’ll learn how to fit into an offense and how to play a role on defense. They’ll learn what is a good shot and what is a bad shot. They’ll learn how to walk away from a confrontation.
And with the amount of talent that this group has on their roster, if they learn it by the end of this year, watch out.
“I don’t want to say that [this is my most talented team] because I’ve had some pretty good teams,” Cal said, “but this team has a chance to be special.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.