Kentucky, NKU hope to apply lessons learned in season openers

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 9, 2013 

Kentucky and Northern Kentucky have more in common than a game Sunday in Rupp Arena.

At this newborn stage of a season, they are two inexperienced teams trying to find themselves, learn how to play as a unit, accentuate strengths and limit the exposure of weaknesses.

"We're doing the same things," NKU Coach Dave Bezold said last week. "Their kids are just taller and bigger and faster and stronger. They're the same ages, though, and they're going through similar growth patterns right now."

The only difference in the learning process is the level of the programs: Kentucky is the winningest program in Division I and an eight-time national champion; Northern Kentucky is in the second year of a transition to Division I and won't be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until the 2016-17 season.

Each team made its debut Friday night.

After Kentucky beat UNC Asheville 89-57, Coach John Calipari noted the need to play with more consistent effort on defense and with greater efficiency on offense. He lamented how the Cats:

■ Did not sustain effort on defense. "We just stopped over and over," he said. "We didn't play one possession defensively."

Actually, UNC Asheville could not get off a shot before the 35-second shot clock expired on three possessions. That happened only six times all last season.

■ Did not show patience on offense. "When the (opponent's) defense is down there, don't try to make a play now. Pass the ball. But it's all things that we've got to learn."

■ Need to show greater fight and competitiveness. "The intensity and the fight that they've got to play with, we're just not where we need to be right now."

That said, Calipari reminded reporters — and perhaps himself — that Kentucky again is a team dependent on freshmen.

"Now, let me say this: Their first college game," Calipari said to provide perspective on his litany of lessons to be drawn from the opener. "Their first college game."

Northern Kentucky opened at Purdue on Friday. The old equalizer — the three-point shot — nearly enabled the Norse to win. By making 13 of 26 three-point shots, NKU led 76-72 with less than a minute to go. Purdue went ahead 77-76 by making two free throws with 13.4 seconds left, then held on when Northern Kentucky missed a driving shot and a put-back in the final seconds.

"I was really proud of the way our guys battled the entire game," Bezold said in post-game remarks. "We just came up a possession short."

NKU won Purdue Coach Matt Painter's respect.

"I thought they were tough and they competed," he said of the Norse. "I was impressed. They deserved to win this game. They're a really good team."

Northern Kentucky started three sophomores and a freshman at Purdue. Its nine-man rotation included six sophomores and two freshmen. Two of the sophomores, 5-foot-9 Todd Johnson and 6-6 Jack Flournoy — each made four three-pointers.

In its first season on the Division I level, Northern Kentucky went 9-9 in the Atlantic Sun Conference and played competitively at No. 3 Ohio State before losing 70-43.

"This year we're not even close to playing defense like that team could," Bezold said before the Purdue game. "We don't have any idea how to control pace. But we can shoot the ball a little bit better (than last season)."

Purdue made 46.6 percent of its shots (seven of 15 from three-point range).

Northern Kentucky is jumping into the deep end of the Division I pool this season. In addition to opening at Purdue and facing No. 1 Kentucky less than 48 hours later, the Norse also play at North Carolina on Dec. 27.

Bezold noted how these games can help publicize the NKU "brand" as a viable Division I program.

"People will see our name on the tickers," he said. "I think it's very important. To put those historic names on our schedule, I can't tell you how excited our alumni were about that."

Whether he was sandbagging or overly fretful, Bezold said last week that NKU was not ready to compete on an equal footing with teams like Kentucky, North Carolina and Purdue.

"We're not," he said, "and I told our kids we're not ready for this and I set them up very poorly. ...

"It is what it is, and we just look forward to it. It's just going to help us be a better basketball program."


NORTHERN KENTUCKY AT Kentucky

When: 4 p.m. Sunday | TV: Live on Fox Sports South (Delayed broadcast on CWKYT-27.2 at 6 p.m.) | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1Records: Northern Kentucky 0-1, Kentucky 1-0 | Last meeting: The teams have never played each other.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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