Near-miss will get Cats' attention

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistNovember 18, 2009 

Monday night's murderously close scare at the hands of the ravenous Miami RedHawks was the best thing that could have happened to John Calipari's collection of young Turks.

You could argue the only thing better would have been for Kentucky to lose to Charlie Coles' club.

OK, not really. After all, a second-game loss in the Calipari era would have produced a viral wave of blue-clad cliff-divers. All I heard Tuesday were personal anecdotes of Panic Room, er, Rupp Arena patrons experiencing degrees of negative vibes when UK dropped 18 points behind.

Kentucky basketball fans might say what they care most about is March. Thing is, to them, every month is March.

That's another reason John Calipari is the right guy to drive this monster truck. Finally, a Kentucky coach who likes to win, yes, but a Kentucky coach brave enough to say he doesn't have it all figured out in mid-November, audacious enough to say he was "ecstatic" to fall 18 points behind so he could see how his team would react, and crazy enough to broach the unthinkable, i.e. it's OK to lose. In November.

All's well that ends well, of course, thanks to John WonderWall — hat tip to the Web's Kentucky Sports Network — ripping that pull-up jumper a heartbeat before the buzzer to give fourth-ranked Kentucky the 72-70 victory on Monday.

But, oh, what a game. And what a learning experience for Cal and his celebrity cast.

Why, in the post-game interviews, someone asked Wall when was the last time the freshman had hit a game-winning shot. The guard shyly admitted there had never been a previous occurrence, mainly because most of his games, AAU or high school, had been blowouts.

Monday was no blowout. I know, I know, Cal could sell coal to Joe Craft, but his pre-conference scheduling strategy is dead-on. Yes, you want to play traditional powers, such as North Carolina and Connecticut, Louisville and Indiana. But that pays you no RPI benefits when you water things down with Little Sisters of the Distressed Economy and (Cal's favorite) Popcorn State.

Better to play a team such as Miami (Ohio), with the crafty Coles, who placed his zone defense in serious sag-mode, took the leash off super-shooter Nick Winbush and coaxed the Oxfordites into playing with an everything-to-gain mentality.

But the Cats made some educational gains, as well. DeMarcus Cousins learned the need to avoid personals (as in fouls) and pouting. Darius Miller learned he can, yes, he can be assertive and hit big shots. Patrick Patterson learned that while he can now throw in a three-pointer, he still has the ability to throw down an attention-getting dunk.

We've also learned the Cats will see zone defenses in their sleep studies if no one other than Darnell Dodson makes an outside jumper. And that for all those assistant coaches and assistants and assistants to assistants over at Camp Calipari, he might want to see whether Mitch Barnhart can raise funds for a free-throw consultant.

Oh, yes, we also learned John Legend can streak down the floor and hit a pull-up jumper in 5.5 seconds. That's good to know, and a beautiful thing to see.

But if Wall had not hit that shot, and the Cats had lost in overtime, it would still have been no big deal.

See, we all know Calipari can talk — listeners tell me Tom Leach could complete his Christmas shopping before the coach finishes an answer on the post-game show — but Monday night's scare has surely given him the best gift the coach of a highly hyped team can receive in mid-November:

His team's ear.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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