John Clay: Nail-biters are the new normal for Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 15, 2013 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Welcome to the new normal.

This is the way it's going to be this Kentucky basketball season. We are 16 games in with 15 regular-season games to go and a pattern has been firmly established.

John Calipari isn't kidding when he says these are going to "be hard games for us." Every game. Even in the SEC.

He wasn't kidding Tuesday night.

"I came to this conclusion, in the last seven or eight years I've coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people," said Calipari after his Cats pulled out a 75-65 win over visiting Tennessee. "This ain't going to be one of them."

No it ain't.

This might be "normal" for the rest of college basketball, but after being spoiled here for the past three seasons, especially last season, this is a jarring normal for the Big Blue Nation.

Then again, after a year of laughers, the law of averages said we should be prepared for a season full of dramatics.

"Every game we're going to be in is going to be a dog fight," Calipari said. "Instead of going crazy about it, how about just accepting it, right?"

A Tuesday night win was easier to accept than a Saturday loss to Texas A&M, but for 40 full minutes all the signs pointed to the fact this just isn't going to be easy this season. Not even with a team filled with McDonald's All-Americans, not even with a team of future NBA lottery picks, not this team of, well, normal freshmen.

Tennessee dropped to 0-3 in the SEC and that's the thing. This isn't a good Tennessee team, not by a long shot. And with 6:27 left, the game was tied 56-56. And on Kentucky's home floor.

Even worse, when Tennessee fell behind, Cuonzo Martin's team flat-out blew a gift in the final minute. UK's Julius Mays was called for a questionable flagrant-one foul while trying to split a backcourt trap with 42.7 seconds left. Tennessee's Josh Richardson stepped to the line to shoot two foul shots with the Vols down 71-65.

He airballed the first.

He grazed the rim with the second.

Then UT inbounded the ball and missed a contested shot inside. A totally empty possession.

Contrast that to last Saturday when Texas A&M seized the opportunity. Elston Turner made huge shots on a magnificent afternoon. The Aggies got nearly every rebound and the visitors pulled away at the end to hand UK its second shocking home loss of the season.

So maybe that's the way it's going to be around here in the new normal. As Calipari struggles to get his young players into a consistent groove, the difference between a UK loss and a UK win may have more to do with the other team on the floor.

To be sure, there were some good moments for the team in white. The Cats made some plays. They deserve credit.

"This was a good win for us," Calipari said.

Kyle Wiltjer scored 17 points and was terrific through stretches and not just because he made open three-point shots. The sophomore passed, made a couple of athletic drives to the hole, made a pair of fine defensive plays.

For someone espn.com dubbed "one of the five most overrated prospects in college basketball," Nerlens Noel made hustle play after hustle play.

And Mays hit clutch back-to-back threes when the Cats started to squeeze out a little bit of separation from the team in orange.

"We came in trying to win a ball game and we came up short," Martin lamented.

Fact was, Tennessee could have won, Kentucky could have lost. Of late, we're not used to that scenario around here.

So near the end of his news conference, Calipari was asked if he could accept coaching a team that is not going to "whomp" on people?

"I have to. I did today," said the coach. "Last eight years we were winning 35 games a year. We were beating people by 30. This team is not capable of doing that."

For Kentucky, that's the new normal.

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

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