John Clay: Cats will struggle until 'me' becomes 'we'

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 14, 2013 

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the waning moments of North Carolina's 82-77 win over Kentucky on Saturday, the home fans wearing the white-out T-shirts just couldn't help themselves.

"Over-rated, over-rated, over-rated," they chanted.

It was predictable, trite — and oh so right.

This Kentucky basketball team was overhyped.

A month into this 2013-14 basketball season, the over-the-top notion that the nation's pre-season No. 1 team would instantly overcome its youth and inexperience and wreak havoc on the college basketball world has not come to pass.

Doesn't mean this Kentucky basketball team can't put it all together and win the SEC and make the Final Four and even meet the gaudy expectations and hang the school's ninth NCAA title banner in Rupp Arena.

Right now, however, the team some foolishly predicted would go 40-0 has lost to the three best teams it has played.

"We're not a good team" said the head coach John Calipari afterward.

Oh, the Cats boast the type of individual talent that makes the recruiting analysts go ga-ga, that makes agents see dollar signs, that makes the pro scouts drool.

But what this young Kentucky team has in talent, it lacks in the understanding of what it takes to play with focus and intensity, of what it takes to be a team.

And while Saturday was UK's first true road test this season, it's also true that this is not a great North Carolina team, nor one that played a great game Saturday.

The Tar Heels won the game without dressing their best player in guard P.J. Hairston and one of its better players in guard Leslie McDonald.

The Heels won the game despite making just 26 of 45 free throws for 57.8 percent.

The Heels won the game despite being outrebounded 44-32.

"I don't think it was the most artistic game ever," Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach, said afterward.

It was, however, as telling as the number of times Kentucky players hung their heads after mistakes, or questioned the officials after foul calls, or looked at Calipari in disbelief as the head coach yelled in their direction.

"We have so much talent on our team, and that's never the question when we lose," said guard Andrew Harrison. "It's just, 'Can we take a punch?'"

Maybe it's time to stop talking about all that supposed individual talent.

Maybe it's time to focus on when all that talent is going to come together as a team.

"We're not a good team because everything, our emotion, is all based on our individual play instead of our team play," Calipari said. "Like, 'We just got a great stop, let's all five chest each other and let's go nuts.' We're not close to that right now.

"Our stuff is all based on, 'Did I miss a free throw? Did I get beat on the dribble? Did I miss a shot? Did I turn it over?'"

Calipari was wrong on one thing. The Cats were close to it, very close to it Saturday morning.

That was when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the former Wildcat and current Charlotte Bobcat, turned up for the Kentucky shoot-around at the Dean Dome.

Were the member of the 2012 title team on this 2013-14 team, Kidd-Gilchrist would grab it by the jersey and — to use a Calipari term — drag it forward whether it wanted to go forward or not.

There would be Breakfast Clubs and late-night free throw sessions and chest bumps and motivational talks and if all that didn't work, MKG would simply get down in his defensive stance and make something happen that wouldn't show up on the scoreboard but would make all the difference in the game.

That's the under-appreciated thing this overhyped team lacks.

When we were talking about the hyped-up talent this Kentucky team had going into this season, we should have been talking about what it lacked.

"It doesn't matter how bad I want them to get it," Calipari said. "They've got to want it."

Do they?

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

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