John Clay: Lack of effort won't cut it against top teams

Herald-Leader Sports Columnist,John ClayNovember 25, 2013 

Note to Kentucky: It's going to take more than seven minutes.

That's true even if it is the final seven minutes of the game, like the final seven minutes Monday night at Rupp Arena, and you rally from a double-digit deficit to escape the upset clutches — "We needed this," said Coach John Calipari — and beat an inspired Cleveland State team 68-61 on your home floor.

Here's the thing: There are better teams remaining on your schedule than Cleveland State.

That's not to take anything away from the Vikings, a smart, scrappy group that came up tough in a hostile environment, pushing the host Cats to the point where Gary Waters' team held a 54-44 lead with 7:10 remaining.

And maybe Kentucky will have no problem getting up for the really big ones on the schedule like North Carolina and Louisville and Florida.

There are plenty of other good teams on the date book, however, teams without marquee names but teams good enough to hold on to that double-digit lead down the stretch.

"You can't start games like we're starting," Calipari said.

The Cats fell behind 11-4 four minutes into the game, 19-10 with 12:17 left in the first half. It was 31-27 Cleveland State at intermission.

There's no real secret to why the Cats aren't getting off to better starts.

"You can't let a team come out and have way more emotion than you," Calipari said.

Make that emotion and another e-word — effort. Three weeks into their college career, the heralded young players on this Kentucky basketball team — part of maybe the best recruiting class in the history of the sport — plays as though they're a little too cool, that they can't be bothered to play with noticeable passion. That might be uncool.

"They were just playing harder than us," said UK freshman Julius Randle when asked why Cleveland State claimed the lead and kept it for so long. "That was the main problem."

There's not enough communication on defense, something you saw when Cleveland State kept driving around the Kentucky guards.

For a team that has reportedly been working on defense, the Cats didn't show the results of that focus, at least not through the first 33 minutes.

Length was Kentucky's defensive saving grace — "Length is the difference between the high-majors and the mid-majors," said Waters, the Cleveland State coach. UK blocked seven shots, led by Willie Cauley-Stein with four.

Meanwhile, on the offensive end, the Cats shot just 26.9 percent the first half. They were holding steady around the 30 percent mark until the final seven minutes when, suddenly, things started clicking and shots started falling.

"We came together as a team," said Andrew Harrison, the point guard who had a pair of old-fashioned three-point plays during the Cats' 21-3 run that turned a 54-44 deficit into a 65-57 lead. "We hadn't really done that before."

Yes, there is something to be said for a young team that pulls out a win at game's end.

"I think we showed a will to win, which is good," Calipari said.

On the other hand, Randle, who had just produced his sixth double in his first six college games with 15 points and 15 rebounds, sat in the director's chair for post-game interviews and didn't seem, well, happy.

"No, I'm happy when we win," he said. "There's just things we've got to work on. There's a lot going through my head about how we've got to get better."

Such as?

"I'll think about it tonight," he said.

Randle may be a freshman, but he knows. Better opponents are coming. Seven minutes won't be enough.

"It doesn't take a loss to learn," Waters said.

The lesson learned Monday? Don't be fooled. Next time, seven minutes won't be enough.

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

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