John Clay: Cats' bad habits turn into positive play against State

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 8, 2014 

For all the endless practices and grueling workouts and constructive team-building it did at the famous "Camp Cal" over the holiday break, the Kentucky basketball team apparently forgot to do one thing.

Buy rust protection.

"Our habits stink," John Calipari said on Friday.

Breaking bad habits has been the Kentucky coach's constant battle with this young team.

And after an 11-day layoff from the team's last game, that momentum-building victory over visiting archrival Louisville, the Cats reverted to bad habits in the first half of their 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday night at Rupp Arena.

There was the failure to get back on defense.

There was the bad body language.

There was the lack of energy.

There was the settling for perimeter shots, usually from beyond the three-point arc, against the zone defense.

You know, the usual suspects.

It apparently took a Camp Cal refresher course back at base camp, i.e. the Rupp locker room, to get the Cats re-focused.

Second half, they got their mojo back and took care of the undermanned Bulldogs in the SEC opener.

"I think we were rusty," said assistant John Robic, who subbed for Calipari in the post-game news conference while the coach went to the hospital to check on his son Brad, who had surgery on his torn ACL on Tuesday. "We're in game shape but we weren't ready for the start of the game."

Example: The Cats missed 11 of their first 13 field-goal attempts.

Example: The Cats missed five of their first eight free throws.

Example: Kentucky trailed 40-37 at the half, the third time in the last four games UK carried a first-half deficit into the locker room at intermission.

True, the second half could have been Mississippi State just waking up and realizing it is Mississippi State.

Second-year coach Ricky Ray has done an admirable job getting the most out of his Bulldogs. They play hard and together.

"We just don't have enough bodies," said the coach, who has but eight players on scholarship. "We had guys go their own way in the second half and we're not good enough to go our own way."

And despite all its individual talent, Kentucky isn't good enough to overcome its bad habits.

Consider that UK took 14 three-point shots in the first half. (It made just two.) That's way too many attempts, especially for a team that boasts so much size. The second half, the home team cut the three-point attempts down to six.

Instead, the Cats threw about 14 lobs in the second half, most of which were converted into highlight-reel jams.

Alex Poythress had a particularly impressive one-handed jam, and he also contributed an impressive reverse jam off a lob.

In fact, Ray lamented the fact that most people watching SportsCenter will think the game was a horn-to-horn blowout instead of a nip-and-tuck battle in the first 20 minutes.

"They're going to see us getting dunked on on SportsCenter," said the coach.

What they may not also notice is that UK won with Julius Randle scoring only three field goals — though the freshman forward did snatch a game-high 14 rebounds — or the gum popping out of Andrew Harrison's mouth when he went to protest a personal foul call, or Aaron Harrison being called for a flagrant foul when his arms got locked up with a State player who was flying in for his own jam.

In the end, once the Cats found their form, they shot 65.4 percent in the second half and ended up outrebounding State by 16.

James Young produced his second consecutive double-double, scoring 26 points with 10 rebounds.

And the home team was 1-0 in conference play heading into Saturday's game at Vanderbilt.

Two days after that, the Cats travel to Arkansas.

Let's hope they've knocked off the rust.

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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