John Clay: UK's tepid performance vs. Transy has silver lining

Herald-Leader Sports Columnist,John ClayNovember 1, 2013 

Even if it plays 40 basketball games and wins them all and hangs that ninth banner in Rupp Arena, Kentucky will not play a more beneficial basketball game than the one it played Friday night in Rupp Arena.

Not because Kentucky played well. It didn't.

And the fact that it didn't play well was just what John Calipari's heralded team needed right out of the chute as it all but sleep-walked its way through a 76-42 win over tiny Transylvania in the season's exhibition opener.

"This is a great lesson for us," Calipari said. "Not enough energy and effort.

"We had one guy on defense that was active."

What Calipari was really saying: Not good enough.

That's right. Not good enough for the team that was supposed to be too good, the team with the most heralded freshmen class in college basketball history, the team that was just Thursday voted the No. 1 team in the Associated Press' pre-season poll.

"Like I told the guys after," Calipari said, "that didn't look like the No. 1 team to me."

In the long run, that's good. If you look like the No. 1 team on the first day of November, playing eight true freshmen — a ninth, Andrew Harrison, sat with a bone bruise on his knee — chances are you won't be the No. 1 team on the first weekend in April.

If Kentucky had come out and done what was expected and run the poor Pioneers right out of the gym and back up Broadway, young heads might swell, ears might close, effort might be judged as good enough.

Transy Coach Brian Lane took up for the Cats. Lane said it's hard for a tall team to play a much smaller team. ("Mosquitoes at their knees," he said.) He said it's tough when a team is expected to trounce another team, especially when it's a young team.

But Calipari wasn't having any of that. The players said the coach was not a happy camper at halftime when UK led just 41-30. The players said his mood hadn't improved much after the game, despite the fact Kentucky played better in the second half.

"Probably just played harder no matter the opponent, even though it was a lesser opponent, played harder and got a couple of more stops on defense," freshman Dakari Johnson said. "Just played harder defense."

Was that Calipari's post-game message?

"Oh yeah," Johnson said with a smile. "Of course."

Knowing that the coach was right, the Cats listened.

"One of the pet peeves is not playing hard," Julius Randle said. "We're just not out there playing hard enough on defense or offense running the floor."

"We didn't come close to having a breakout in the first half," Calipari said.

Then in the second half, when Jon Hood threw down a dunk off a lob from Dominique Hawkins, who had taken an outlet pass from Jarrod Polson, Calipari had to get on his players on the bench to stand up and cheer.

"It's who you're going to be if you don't start competing. Learn it," Calipari said when asked about the play. "Stand up, cheer, wave the towel, do whatever you're going to do, but you're not going to sit there. You get in that game and you fight like crazy."

The Cats didn't fight, so now they'll practice.

"So we'll go twice tomorrow, twice on Sunday, play on Monday, see what happens," Calipari said. "See if we can cure some of this stuff."

Mad on the outside, happy on the inside? Wouldn't be surprised.

With a young team, you have to get their attention early. You have to find a way to show it that this isn't high school basketball, this isn't AAU basketball, this isn't All-Star basketball.

There's no easy button at this level. Not even against a Division III team with 13 freshmen.

"Transy gave us what we needed," Calipari said.

The guess here is it gave Calipari what he needed, as well. The coach has his team right where he wants it.

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

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