John Clay: A flawed Kentucky win, but another move in the right direction

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 11, 2014 

NASHVILLE — So your undermanned opponent shot 50 percent from the field for the game, and your best player had to leave the floor with cramps for what seems like the 30th time this season, and once again there were plenty of times your young Cats played like crazy Cats, and not in a good way.

So here's the most puzzling question in all of college basketball: Why doesn't 54-year-old John Calipari have a head of hair as white as the driven snow?

"I like my team," said the Kentucky coach on Saturday afternoon in Music City after his Cats had beaten undermanned Vanderbilt 71-62 in UK's first SEC road game of the season.

You know Cal, he always likes his team — or says he does even when he doesn't. And to be perfectly honest, what's not to like about an SEC road win?

To be sure, the negative nabobs of nitpicking will focus on all the Cats did wrong inside haunted Memorial Gym. They'll bite their nails over Julius Randle's continuing cramping episodes, point to Vanderbilt's impressive shooting percentage and lament the fact the Cats couldn't crush the Commodores.

After all, the loyal Nashville precinct of the Big Blue Nation once again claimed a significant number of the home team's seats, ready to watch a Big Blue blowout that didn't happen.

But were you really expecting a ready-made rout? Seriously? Vegas didn't expect it. The people who make a living doing such things pinned a nine-point line on the game, which turned out to be the exact final margin. That seems to happen a lot. Those guys are good.

No one could blame Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings if he suffered from abandonment issues. Last week's dismissal of leading scorer Eric McClellan, a transfer from Tulsa, left the Commodores with seven scholarship players.

Here's the thing: Everybody thinks the SEC is a bad basketball league, but when it comes to road games it is no different than any other basketball league. Playing on the road is hard. Winning on the road is hard(er).

Remember Cal's 2010-2011 team, the one that went to the Final Four? It was a sterling 2-6 on the road in the SEC. Go look it up.

Saturday, Calipari loved the way Alex Poythress played. He loved the way Willie Cauley-Stein and Jarrod Polson played.

He said the way Andrew Harrison is starting to play, the freshman point guard's development is reminiscent of Tyreke Evans, the point guard Cal had at Memphis who took some time to find his stride.

"I tell you what we did, we defended," Calipari said.

Uh, coach, the stat sheet here in our hands says Vanderbilt shot 50 percent from the floor. That's usually not good.

"In the second half, they must have shot 90 percent," said the coach — the actual figure being 62.5. "We left corners. We left open shooters. They're going to do that. But I still think when it came down to when we needed to guard somebody, I felt we did."

Much like the win over Louisville on Dec. 28, Kentucky did largely without Randle in the second half. Against the Cards, cramps limited the freshman forward to three second-half minutes and no points. Saturday, cramps limited the freshman forward to eight second-half minutes and one point against the Commodores. The one point was the game's final point, a free throw with 39 seconds remaining.

If you thought Calipari would provide a detailed description of Randle's medical condition, or express concern about this ongoing concern, you don't know John Calipari. He shrugged it off. No big deal. Next man up. Train keeps rolling.

Next stop is Fayetteville, Ark., on Tuesday night when the Razorbacks will have had a couple of days to chew on Saturday's 84-82 overtime loss to visiting Florida.

Back in the city of picking and grinning, however, Calipari wasn't about to nitpick his win.

"We're fine," he said. "We're getting better."

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

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