John Clay: Young Cats slowly, surely finding an identity

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 3, 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

Big Blue Nation found its way to College Station.

Two hours before tipoff Saturday, traveling fanatics in Kentucky colors circled Reed Arena on the Texas A&M campus waiting for the doors to open. Once inside, they snapped pictures of their beloved Cats in the layup line, practiced their "Go Big Blue Chants" and shared the excited grins of ones lucky enough to see a UK basketball team in Aggieland for the very first time.

What they witnessed was a Kentucky team that is slowly but surely finding itself.

It's true.

Never mind the chronic complainers who pine for the Big Blue Machine of a year ago. It's not that team, nor is it going to be that team. Every game is "a dog fight," as John Calipari said after UK's 72-68 overtime win over the host Aggies, but that's OK if you keep coming out as top dog.

True, Kentucky isn't dominating conference foes. It's also true, however, that the Cats are now 4-1 in road conference games, having just completed a two-week travel grind during which Calipari's club won three of its four outings away from home.

And it just finished a week when it beat the nation's No. 16 team in Ole Miss and the same Texas A&M that roughed up the Cats in Rupp Arena by a dozen points just three weeks ago.

So what's to complain about?

Free throws? Yes, Kentucky missed five of its first 10 and six of its first 13 on Saturday. After that, however, the Cats clicked at the line, making 16 of 21 for 76.2 percent. They made 10 of their last 12, including eight of 10 in overtime.

At Ole Miss, Kentucky struggled early from the foul stripe but then finished with a flourish, making nine straight in the final 3:50 before finally missing the game's final free throw.

Turnovers? The Cats turned it over 19 times Saturday, including 12 in the second half and six in the final 2:07. Kyle Wiltjer was responsible for six miscues. He became the first person to ever throw a lob pass that even Nerlens Noel couldn't reach. Later, Wiltjer managed to get snared in a backcourt trap without remembering that his team had three usable time-outs.

In the five-minute overtime, however, UK regrouped and refocused. The visitors committed just one turnover, when they killed a little too much time with a three-point lead and suffered a shot-clock violation.

Killer instinct? Kentucky had a 17-point lead at Ole Miss, and before you knew it, the Rebels were within one. Kentucky had a 13-point lead in the first half Saturday, then an eight-point lead with three minutes left, and before you knew it, the Aggies had forced an extra period.

So UK doesn't know how to put a foot to the opponent's throat. That's a normal problem for a young team. Luckily it had Julius "Respect Your Elders" Mays on Saturday to bring the skid to a stop. Mays hit key shots from beyond the three-point line. He hit key tosses from the free-throw line. Mays was the man.

Speaking of men, Calipari's rambling Friday press conference during which he talked about "life lessons" and "beer muscles" and how a team should be "men who enjoy being around men" prompted a close relative of mine to remark, "I think this team is getting to Calipari. He's losing it."

Maybe, but his team isn't — it's 6-2 in the SEC.

"I told them there are 150 teams that lost today," said the coach. "And we're not one of them."

All those Kentucky fans in College Station on Saturday would give a hearty Lone Star State salute to that.

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

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