First and foremost, before we start talking about No. 8 Kentucky’s 64-50 loss to Notre Dame on Thursday night, we need to get one thing out there: Kentucky is not as bad as they were against the Irish.
The Wildcats are a young team, a group of freshmen, that have never had to play a true road game before, and the first place they are forced to play is Purcell Pavilion, which is probably one of the 10 or 15 toughest environments to play in? And they are still without their point guard? Going up against a Notre Dame team that is experienced, underrated and adept at controlling tempo and executing offensively?
What happened here is simple, actually. Notre Dame came out and punched Kentucky in the mouth, catching fire early and opening up a big first half lead. Kentucky responded by doing what freshmen are wont to do: forcing shots, getting impatient defensively, and most importantly, getting overwhelmed by a raucous home court that included Heisman hopeful Manti Te’o as a member of the student section.
“This was not two teams battling and then Notre Dame won,” John Calipari said after the game. “This was Notre Dame threw us around and dominated us.”
I even picked Notre Dame to win, and while I didn’t think that they would wipe the floor with the Wildcats, the result should not be surprising.
The Irish are underrated. By a lot. They have a veteran back court in Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins that are capable of controlling the pace of a basketball game — which allows Mike Brey to run his ‘Burn Offense’ when necessary — and that are dynamic play makers. They can penetrate to score, they can get into the lane and create, they run off of big Jack Cooley’s hard-hitting ball-screen, and they hit threes. Throw in shooters Scott Martin, Cameron Biedscheid, and Patrick Connaughton spreading the floor, and the Irish can put a lineup on the floor that is quite difficult to slow down.
And against Kentucky, you saw all of that.
You saw ball-screens. You saw penetration-and-kicks. You saw Cooley abuse the more athletic Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein with positioning and strength, as he finished with 13 points and 11 boards, six of which game on the offensive end of the floor.
Everyone on Notre Dame understands their role, and it’s quite obvious how the Irish fit together. And that right there is the most noteworthy dichotomy between these two programs.
The biggest concern I had about the Wildcats heading into this season had less to do with a lacking veteran presence (which is a concern, trust me) and more to do with the simple fact that the pieces on this team just don’t seem to fit together. Does Alex Poythress really want to be the man, which Kentucky needs him to be? Does he was to be a beast? Can Ryan Harrow be this team’s point guard down the road? Can Archie Goodwin, who is best suited to playing on a wing, learn to play the point in his stead? Is Julius Mays really this team’s Darius Miller? Can Kyle Wiltjer defend? Will either Noel or Cauley-Stein develop enough of an offensive game to be a threat?
Is this a team that plays big or small? Do they thrive on their defense? Is this a running team?
John Calipari’s has got his work cut out for him this season. There’s too much talent to ever count this team out, but if Thursday told us anything, it’s that Kentucky’s road to success may be longer than we thought.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.