Quick opponents forcing young Cats to adjust to speed of college game

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 26, 2013 

From John Calipari on down, talk about what's wrong or not sufficiently right about Kentucky followed Monday's victory over Cleveland State by non-blowout proportions. To this overwrought stew Eastern Michigan Coach Rob Murphy added sobering perspective.

"Kentucky's had success," Murphy said. "They've only lost to the No. 1 team in the country, Michigan State, which had a bunch of experience. Kentucky lost to arguably what will be the best team all year in college basketball."

Well, there's that.

But if the actors simply leave the haunted house at the first spooky sensation, what kind of movie would that make?

Kentucky is not immune to the surprises and suspense that define a freshman-oriented team. Kentucky is going through the normal development that Calipari annually cautions his skittish fans to expect. I don't want a team in November playing like it's January or February.

Murphy, whose team plays Kentucky on Wednesday afternoon in Rupp Arena, disagreed with the notion that the Kiddie Cats are not playing with effort.

"I think they're playing hard," he said. "Any time you have kids playing Division I basketball, there is some form of an adjustment period and getting (comfortable) in the speed and quickness and the understanding of playing Division I basketball.

"It doesn't seem to me they're not playing hard. I think they're playing hard. They're just freshmen, and it's going to take time for them to learn."

Neither opposing coach in the last two games suggested that his team out-hustled Kentucky. Both claimed an advantage in quickness.

Texas-Arlington's Scott Cross said beating UK guards off the dribble was "probably the only area I thought we'd have a chance of attacking them. ... The question was what were we going to do with it once we got it in there?"

UT-Arlington's guards, especially Reger Dowell, out-quicked the Cats.

"About the only chance you've got is to beat them off the dribble," Cross said, "and create shots for other guys because they're so tall and so athletic."

Cleveland State rode smaller and quicker to good effect. Coach Gary Waters suggested that quickness was an equalizer to Kentucky's dominating size.

"They took us out of the game and they shouldn't have," he said of his team's fade down the stretch against UK. "The reason is we were quicker. When you're quicker, you can get to one spot faster than the others can."

In theory, the taller team can get beat to a rebound, especially a long rebound, not because it got out-hustled, but because it got out-quicked.

With experience comes a savvy awareness and sense of anticipation that can make a telling difference.

"They're obviously talented," the Eastern Michigan coach said of UK. "No matter how talented, when you come to college as an 18-year-old, you're playing against 21-, 22-year-olds. (The opponent) may be a bit quicker and a bit stronger. They may not be as talented, but they understand the nuances of the Division I game."

Of course, Kentucky is in what Calipari called the "process" of adding experience to talent. The Cats must learn to play the entire game with the urgency that was on display when Cleveland State led by 10 with barely seven minutes left, he said. Stay in a defensive stance. Think "we" rather than "me."

"We're just learning, like every other team," James Young said. "I just think it's going to take a while. It's not going to happen overnight. As the season goes on, we're going to get better."

Eastern Michigan

With a 5-0 record, Eastern Michigan is off to its best start in 17 years.

Murphy credited having six seniors, "dynamic scorers" in Karrington Ward (18.2 points per game) and Raven Lee (18.0) and a familiarity with the signature zone defense he brought from Syracuse.

"Kids are used to some 2-3 zone, but not the way we teach it and play it," he said. "To understand the intricacies of our zone defense has been very pivotal for us."

Eastern Michigan has limited its first five opponents to 33 percent shooting accuracy (27.7 percent from three-point range).

Seven-footer Da'Shonte Riley averages 5.2 blocks a game. As a team, Eastern Michigan averages 10 blocks.

Last season, Eastern Michigan defended well but struggled to score. The Eagles' average of 56.6 points ranked 338th among the 345 Division I teams.

Through five games, Eastern Michigan is averaging 79.2 points. Murphy said Ward and Lee can shoot with range or create off the dribble. Both can "put up points in bunches because they can score in different ways."

Eastern Michigan at No. 3 Kentucky

When: 4 p.m. Wednesday | TV: Live on Fox Sports South (delayed broadcast at 6 p.m. on CWKYT-27.2) | Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1 | Records: Kentucky 5-1, Eastern Michigan 5-0Series: UK leads 1-0 | Last meeting: UK won 90-38 on Jan. 2, 2013, in Rupp Arena | John Clay's live blog: Follow at johnclay.bloginky.com | Twitter updates: @JerryTipton and @johnclayiv

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

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