John Clay: Will the real Cats please stand up?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 30, 2012 

  • Wednesday

    Eastern Michigan at Kentucky

    When: 6 p.m.

    TV: ESPNU

The Cats are cooking now, right? A decided underdog at fourth-ranked Louisville on Saturday, Kentucky closed to within a one-possession game. It showed fight. It showed heart.

It showed a reason to believe this young team might be better than we had thought as far back as, say, two weeks ago. Right?

Not to throw water on a losing team's parade, but that depends on which is the real Kentucky we saw on Saturday inside the KFC Yum Center.

Was it the team that outscored Louisville 43-29 over the game's final 15 minutes before losing 80-77?

Or was it the team that fell behind by 17 points in the first place?

As we head into the new year, the answer to that question will tell us a lot about the rest of the season.

Start with the team that fell behind, the one that got little from Alex Poythress or Julius Mays, both expected to be major players in the regular rotation.

Poythress is a freshman forward still struggling to find himself in the college game and as the subject of John Calipari's in-game explosions, the ones capped with the coach pointing directly at the Tennessee native and then pointing a path directly to the bench.

"He just didn't do anything," Calipari said. "The reason I took him out the last play — there was a rebound right in front of the rim, that was his ball, and he kind of went after it but didn't. Instead of grabbing it and tip-dunking it so we can get back in the game, he let the other guy grab it. You're out. (He said) 'I tried.' I know, (but, the opponent) is trying harder than you so you've got to sit.'"

Mays is carrying the conundrum of being a senior who is not really a senior. A fifth-year transfer, he's navigating the step up in competition from his former school, Wright State, but has unfortunately misplaced his shooting eye. The last three games, Mays has taken 23 shots. He's made three.

That team, the one that played Saturday's first 25 minutes, might be able to make a dent in the woeful SEC, but it doesn't get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

The team that played Saturday's final 15 minutes, that's a different team. That team had a scoring machine in Archie Goodwin, who tallied 16 points in the game's final 7:23. That team benefited from back-to-back threes by Kyle Wiltjer, from board work by Willie Cauley-Stein, from a better all-around competitive spirit.

It also benefited from Louisville foul trouble. With 9:17 left, both U of L starting guards, Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, had picked up their fourth fouls. Center Gorgui Dieng already had four. Even if unintentionally, the Cards appeared to dial back their defensive pressure.

"We just lost our defensive pressure in the second half because we worried about foul trouble," said Rick Pitino, the Louisville coach.

By my count, Kentucky committed 12 turnovers in the game's first 30-minutes-plus before Smith and Siva were both saddled with four fouls. In the final nine minutes, the Cats committed all of three turnovers.

"They're going to be an excellent basketball team," Pitino said of Kentucky. "They're going to get better, and better, and better. John's the right guy to get them there. He's a hell of a coach."

As for me, I'm not ready to say the Cats have arrived.

The comeback was nice. Ryan Harrow's 39 minutes without a turnover were admirable. And if UK hit just four more free throws during an atrocious day at the foul line — 11 made free throws; 12 missed free throws — Calipari might have snuck off with his fifth straight win over Pitino.

On the other hand, Kentucky never led in the game's final 27 minutes. At one point, the Louisville lead was 17.

Were those the real Cats? Or were they the Cats that closed so ferociously down the stretch?

The first three months of 2013 will give us the answer.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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