It hardly seems possible but this Kentucky basketball team seems to be re-inventing itself as it’s inventing itself. And it’s fun to watch the process.
The glittering roster assembled by John Calipari prompted giddy (and silly) predictions of an undefeated season and fantasy league-type numbers. What the Wildcats did in Nashville Saturday afternoon showed that they’re a different kind of team, that they’re figuring out different ways to win.
In Vanderbilt, they ran into a team that was wounded, worried and willing to do whatever it had to do in order to protect its homecourt. And they executed, holding off the Commodores, 71-62.
“We’re going to grind it a little bit. Make them play defense,” was a part of the game plan, according to John Calipari. “If we can’t run, we’ll grind.” And they did.
Once again, Julius Randle wasn’t the offensive force he’s been in the past, but he more than made up for it with his window-cleaning prowess in the first half before falling victim to cramps again in the second. No matter.
Willie Cauley-Stein flexed his big man muscles and took up where Randle left off on the offensive end, with 15 points to go along with his six rebounds. He blocked one shot but, as always, altered several more.
Minus the offensive moves that Randle employs, Cauley-Stein has become adept at finding creases in the game that favor his style of play, whether it’s putbacks, lobs or even the drop-step baby hook (left handed!) he utilized in the paint against the Commodores. The dribble drive will have to make way for the sophomore post player who’s no longer a blond.
He even got out on the fast break, something the Wildcats were looking to do today and when you own the boards (41-28 advantage) it’s a lot easier to trigger transition. And when you outrebound the other guys 18-5 on the offensive glass, the grinding comes so much more naturally.
Still, it wasn’t a blowout. Vanderbilt hung around by shredding the nets in the second half. “They must have shot 90 percent in the second half,” Calipari said. It was actually 62.5 but at some point, it doesn’t matter. The shots were falling.
And yes, it was a Vandy team down to seven scholarship, exhausted players. The ‘Dores have just two walk-ons, meaning a manager has to step in when they want to go five-on-five. They drew strength from the typically raucous Memorial Gym crowd.
But that same crowd couldn’t rattle this young Kentucky team, which committed just 10 turnovers while forcing 16. There were warts to the Wildcats’ game, including a 42.6 percent shooting rate from the field, a 6-for-22 afternoon from beyond the arc and a 13-for-22 performance at the free throw line. Think of it as room for improvement.
But it was a road victory. In the league. In a place that has been hard on the Wildcats through the years. And now they head for Fayetteville, where on Saturday afternoon the Florida Gators needed overtime to escape with a two-point victory.
As they head for Arkansas, the Cats need to remember what brought them success in Nashville. When Vandy began chipping away at a double-digit deficit, the Wildcats looked to each other. And they found the shared strength to stay mentally strong and finish the job.
They got loose balls, rebounds and stops. “When we needed to guard somebody,” said Calipari, “we did.”
It’s not a defining victory. There’s too much basketball left to be played. But it’s an encouraging one, a sign that a handful of young players who’ve spent the past three or four years being The Man (or Men, if you’re a Harrison) are starting to think more about each other. And apparently, they’ve heard the rap on them has been selfish play.
“The word is, we’re not good as a team, that we have selfish guys,” said Cauley-Stein, who believes the Wildcats benefitted intangibly from 10 intensive days of Camp Cal. “The last several days we’ve gotten closer as a team. It shows we really do have good guys.”
Good guys who ground out a victory in the Music City. It might not have been a symphony, but on this day, they hit the right notes.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)