Kentucky's 78-74 loss to Michigan State Tuesday was ... meaningless?
That's sort of what ESPN analyst Jalen Rose said.
"I hate to tell it to fans," he said before the Champions Classic double-header. "Whatever happens tonight has no bearing on what happens in March. ...
"You are a different team a handful of months away. But it's a good proving ground."
That kind of perspective reinforced the prevailing theme underlying the action in the United Center. Great show. Compelling action. But, most importantly, a gauge on where each team is at the moment and what has to happen to get where each wants to get in April.
UK Coach John Calipari stressed the need to improve:
■ Free-throw shooting. The 20-for-36 shooting against Michigan State marked the most missed foul shots by a UK team since Jan. 22, 2002. UK missed 17 (16 of 33) in a 69-62 victory at Auburn.
"You miss 16 free throws, you don't deserve to win the game," Calipari said. "... This should be a great free-throw shooting team, and we're not."
Kentucky, shooting a middling 62.3 percent from the line through three games, had to get hot to finish 20-for-36. The Cats actually made nine of their final 11 free throws.
The misses foiled the idea of getting post-up points from Dakari Johnson, who missed his three free throws. "I can't have you in the game because we can't throw you the ball," the UK coach said.
James Young, whom Calipari calls the best shooter in the country, was 2-for-5 from the line.
"We have to get to the bottom of that," Calipari said of the free-throw shooting. He called for the players to walk from the Wildcat Coal Lodge next door to the Craft Center gym to get in extra shooting.
"They have to take it on," he said. "Getting to the foul line and missing them is almost demoralizing."
■ Turnovers. UK had 17 against State.
"I know some of them were so ugly you were saying 'Oh my gosh,'" Calipari said.
Julius Randle, UK's leading light against State and so far this season, had eight. "For one reason," Calipari said. "He held the ball. Then he tried to go against five guys. You can't play basketball that way. The ball moves. Then you attack. The ball doesn't move, you hold it. Then you're attacking five guys."
■ Transition defense. Michigan State outscored Kentucky 21-2 in fast-break points, and the Spartans missed several shots around the basket at the end of breaks.
Calipari offered a simple explanation. "Guys were jogging," he said, "and they were sprinting."
The game included good news. UK outrebounded Michigan State 44-32 (28-16 in the second half).
"They beat us at what we do well," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said of the rebounding. "And I think we beat them with what they do well (transition offense)."
Most prominent on the plus side: Randle cemented his status as the stud of freshman studs, certainly on Kentucky's team and perhaps in the nation.
Randle scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. That gave him three double-doubles in three games and kept him on pace to be the most productive freshman Calipari has had in five seasons filled with first-year stars.
Randle's averages of 24 points and 14.3 rebounds surpass the bests for any Calipari player at this stage of his freshman season. Previous bests: Terrence Jones' 22.0 ppg and DeMarcus Cousins' 10.7 rpg.
Calipari, whose job is to note such things, described how Randle can improve.
"The only time they're stopping him is when you hold the ball, so quit holding the ball," the UK coach said. "Throw it up and go rebound it. That was our offense. He's a fighter."
Izzo was impressed with how Randle did not let an unproductive first half (1-for-5 shooting, four points, four rebounds, four turnovers) prevent a leading role in the second half.
"What I loved about him was he gritted his teeth and was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Izzo said. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes. No one else did that. He completely did that.
"You could hear him talking. You could see it in his face. You could see it in his body language. Tough kid. I like him. Love him."
That said, Izzo also noted that foul trouble for State center Adreian Payne (11 minutes in the second half) helped Randle go off. "If we could have kept (Payne) in there, it wouldn't have happened the way it happened," the State coach said.
Izzo, who called it a "program win" for Michigan State, said that the veteran Spartans as well as youthful Cats can improve between now and the end of the season.
In that, too, Randle may be exceptional.
Of the room for improvement for both teams, Izzo facetiously added, "Now Randle, he doesn't have to get any better. The other guys have to get better and will get better."
Robert Morris at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. TV: ESPN2
What: Keightley Classic
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227.Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com