Wildcats Better Than Last Year’s Team? Stop…

Can we stop now?
Can we stop with the comparisons to last year’s team? And the laughable notion that this year’s Kentucky team is better? If a second straight road loss, to an Alabama team that lost to St. Peter’s, isn’t evidence enough to the contrary, what is?

John Calipari has said two things consistently: “I like my team,” and, “We’re young.” Mix in the answer, “I don’t know yet” to a variety of questions posed at any number of media gatherings, and you pretty much have Cal’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2010-11.

Of course he likes his team. They’re nice players, and good kids. He’s said it himself – there’s no “back and forth” on the bench, as there was last year. Calipari and Demarcus Cousins constantly had words. The UK coach banished Daniel Orton to the locker room during an SEC tournament game. Even John Wall took issue with some of the barbs his coach hurled at him.

There’s none of that this year which, perhaps, is one of the reasons the Wildcats are stinging from their second league road loss in as many trips, with another one staring at them Saturday.
Call it swagger, call it attitude, call it ego – it worked. Last year’s team, thanks to a deeper bench, a mature Patrick Patterson and a more talented freshman class, expected to win every game. This team plays as though it hopes to, if only it can get a bit of cooperation from the other team.

The Wildcats got that from LSU and Auburn, two of the SEC’s have-nots this season. But stoked by crowds that probably won’t turn out again until spring football, both Georgia and Alabama took straight aim at Kentucky’s chin and landed haymakers. The Cats reeled, and eventually fought back, but couldn’t get past the initial stagger.
Staying with the boxing analogy, you have to score the knockout on the road. It’s rare that you can go with finesse and win on points. Kentucky did get the TKO at Louisville, thanks to a well-placed three-pointer by Brandon Knight, which snuffed out a U of L run. But in the SEC, where every player wants to prove he’s as good as those pampered guys in blue, falling behind and then trying to catch up leaves your chin exposed. And so far, UK’s has looked more like glass than cement.

Alabama knocked down seven three pointers on 14 attempts. This was a team that had made three triples in its previous three games. Adrenaline can cause strange things to happen.

But emotions had little to do with the fact that the Crimson Tide pushed the Wildcats around in the paint, especially in the first half. Terrence Jones and Josh Harrellson were no match for the more physical Bama players, even though Harrellson grabbed six first-half rebounds. Jones had three – matching his total of turnovers in the first period. UK was lucky to be down only seven, but the margin ballooned to 20 early in the second half.

That’s when the Wildcats cranked up the defensive pressure, and Alabama obliged, turning it over time and again, a total of 11 in the last 20 minutes. That, combined with Darius Miller and Knight’s combined 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, was why the Cats climbed back into the game and three times cut the deficit to one. But a bungled handoff between Knight and Doron Lamb allowed Bama to steal not only the ball, but the victory.

Some say last year’s team was “selfish.” If that’s what you call demanding the ball and making something happen with it, then, selfish it was. But I’ve seen a lot of championship-caliber players at Kentucky, and they all had one thing in common: Each wanted the ball when it mattered the most, and none of them could stand the notion of an opponent getting over on the Wildcats.

Last year’s team also included an outrageously gifted point guard who led the league in assists, setting a new school record in that category while he was at it. I don’t recall anyone calling Wall “selfish” while he played in Lexington. Cousins and Patterson each patrolled the paint as though it was his mother’s living room. If that’s “selfish,” I’m in.

Calipari railed against selfishness earlier this season, which is how he characterizes a player who doesn’t communicate on the court with his teammates.

But the kind of selfishness this bunch needs to tap into is the kind that says, “This game is mine. Try to take it from me.”
So far, Georgia and Alabama have been up to the challenge. South Carolina awaits in Columbia, the same team (minus a number of talented players) that knocked Kentucky from the unbeaten ranks last year, just a few hours after the newly-voted #1 Wildcats had chatted with Barack Obama.

The same Gamecock fans who stormed the floor after last year’s upset can’t wait. South Carolina, coached by Lexington native Darrin Horn, upset Florida in Gainesville Saturday, and hosts Arkansas Wednesday night. Whether they beat the Hogs or not, the SC faithful will be in full throat when the Cats come to town.
Kentucky needs to put away the counter-punch, and come out swinging.

(Former WKYT Sports Manager Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the UK radio and TV networks. He reports from the sidelines during Wildcat football games on the Big Blue Sports Radio Network. He can be heard each evening from 6-8 p.m.ET on “Sports Nightly,” on 630 WLAP-AM.)


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