It's Kentucky's talent vs. ETSU's experience

Cats get a shot to prove talent can beat experience

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 10, 2010 

ETSU Coach Murry Bartow watched as UK built a big lead in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

CHARLES BERTRAM — cbertram@herald-leader.com

College basketball's version of the heredity-versus-environment debate involves talent versus experience. The best teams need both, but ESPN commentator Dick Vitale sees Kentucky's freshman-oriented team as handicapped by its lack of experience.

"I told him this," Vitale said Tuesday in recalling a conversation with UK Coach John Calipari. "And I feel strongly about this. ... I don't think you'll win a national championship with reloading a roster year after year."

Kentucky reloaded its roster this season after placing an unprecedented five players in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. Recruiting analysts considered the incoming freshman class the nation's best. But Vitale sees a glass ceiling for what a team like Kentucky can achieve.

"You can win a lot of games," Vitale said on an ESPN-sponsored teleconference. "You'll get to a certain point. Sweet 16s. Elite Eights. There is a separation."

Calipari disagreed, Vitale said.

Coincidentally, UK's opener on Friday shapes up as an interesting laboratory to ponder the talent-versus-experience question.

With five freshmen counted upon to contribute, Kentucky collectively has eight Division I seasons of experience. That number might drop to seven for the opener because UK lists junior Eloy Vargas as questionable because of his father's death Tuesday. Juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins, plus senior Josh Harrellson lead the way with two seasons each.

By contrast, the opening-night opponent, East Tennessee State, has 37 seasons of experience. The Bucs have four fifth-year seniors, plus a fourth-year junior.

"Obviously, as a coach, I love the (UK) talent," East Tennessee State Coach Murry Bartow said when asked to weigh in on talent versus experience. "One thing we do have (is), we have some pretty good players that are experienced. ... For us to compete in this game and have a chance, our really experienced guys will have to really, really play well."

One of the Bucs' fifth-year seniors, Tommy Hubbard, hasn't practiced for four weeks and is questionable for the game. Hubbard, the team's leading returning scorer and rebounder, underwent knee surgery.

ESPN commentator Jay Bilas noted that the so-called one-and-done player has helped narrow the gap between mid-major schools such as East Tennessee State and the traditional powers. Experience makes a difference.

"You absolutely have to have talent," Bilas said. "But I think most coaches would rather have talented juniors and seniors than super-talented freshmen."

Bilas acknowledged that Kentucky came close to discounting such thinking last season. Led by John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, UK enjoyed a 35-3 season. "I was amazed," Bilas said.

But to support Vitale's contention, the Cats lost to a more experienced West Virginia team in the Elite Eight. Poor shooting (4-for-32 from three-point range) discombobulated the Cats, who suddenly forgot how to defend.

More experienced teams "understand how to win," Bilas said, "how to come to work every day, how to take care of themselves so they're in position to win at the end."

Beginning his second season for Kentucky, Calipari has repeatedly pointed out that his teams will grow as the season unfolds. The Cats seemed to show the need for growth in the first exhibition game, when they were pushed around by Pikeville, which started four seniors. Pikeville's Landon Slone, the former UK walk-on, said his team's plan included an attempt to exploit UK's youth.

"I don't care what anybody says, it makes a difference having an older team against freshmen," he said.

Pikeville Coach Kelly Wells preferred the term "aggressive" rather than "physical" to describe his team's approach against Kentucky. The Bears wanted to take the initiative against UK.

"It's more a mind-set," said Wells, who added that Calipari got the Cats to be more assertive by the second exhibition against Dillard. "It's not a matter of not being able to do those things. It was a matter of being willing to do those things."

Wells described the adjustment from high school to college as difficult, even for superior players.

"You haven't had the element of travel" on the high school level, he said. "You haven't had the element of study-hall hours. ... You haven't had the element of film sessions. You haven't had the element of a new system. You haven't had the element of playbooks.

"It's just an overwhelming experience."

Beginning Friday, Kentucky will attempt to start making a smooth adjustment and prove Vitale wrong. Bilas saw that as a daunting task.

"Everything is going to be new for everybody," he said. "That's a hard way to play."

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