Coaches agree: Kentucky has lots of room to grow

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 22, 2014 

  • Saturday

    Georgia at No. 14 Kentucky

    When: 1:30 p.m.

    TV: SEC Network (WKYT-27)

Amid his post-game observations Tuesday night, Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy reminded reporters of something that might get overlooked. Or something he sensed needed emphasis.

"Kentucky's kids are young," he volunteered. "I don't think we take that into (consideration). They're talented, extremely talented. But they're young. They're learning how to play hard."

Fans might be tired of hearing about the kiddie part of UK's latest group of Kiddie Cats. After all, a half-season is the new half of a college career.

But 18 games is still not even half of the historic 40-game running of the table that fueled pre-season hyperbole. Freshmen are still freshmen. UK players are not immune to the ups and downs associated with freshmen.

"They're gifted bodies," Kennedy said of how UK players can pass the eyeball test. "But they're maturing like 19-, 20-year-old gifted bodies would mature. And I think it just takes time."

After the 68-51 victory, UK Coach John Calipari noted the season-long evolutionary process. The goal is not merely winning, but improvement.

"It's a grind," he said. "You've got to love the grind. You've got to stay in the grind. (There) can't be any step-back (or) any arrogance. You can't be smirking."

Players must accept coaching and a never-ending quest for improvement.

"How do I get one more step?" Calipari said. "It's never good enough. You're always hungry."

Kennedy spoke of Kentucky physically overwhelming Texas A&M. UK's starters outweighed A&M starters by an average of 27.6 pounds. Plus, Dakari Johnson replacing Willie Cauley-Stein at center added 21 more pounds to UK's advantage.

"They just physically wore us down with their depth and just with their athleticism and size," Kennedy said. "It seemed like when they got to the rim, they got to the foul line and finished. When we got to the rim, they were blocking shots or changing our shots."

Kentucky did Texas A&M a favor by shooting 15 three-point shots in the first half. That represented more than half of UK's first-half shots (27) and wish-fulfillment for Kennedy.

"A lot," he said.

Kennedy described the Aggies' defensive plan as "pack the paint and keep it tight, and hope they miss shots.

"I thought that worked for a while. but they wore us down by continually driving the ball and getting to the free-throw line."

Kentucky got back to being Kentucky in the second half: Only six three-point shots.

"I'm still having to coach too much," Calipari said, referring not necessarily to three-point shooting but to the more general guiding of freshmen. "Having to get on guys too much."

But it's January and they're freshmen. There is plenty to learn and almost two months to learn it before the NCAA Tournament.

"We're playing better," Calipari said. "We're playing with more energy (and) more fight. We're being a more organized team."

Calipari saluted Julius Randle for committing only one turnover, which equaled a season low. "He passed," the UK coach said. "Keep doing it."

Randle, who averaged 3.5 turnovers in SEC games, acknowledged the benefit in passing the ball before defenders swarm.

"It's just a better flow instead of me trying to force some things," he said. "A lot of times that just leads to turnovers. Today I was able to kick the ball out quick, and it really helped the team."

Alex Poythress's development was on display (16 points, five rebounds, two blocks). "He was dominant physically," Kennedy said.

Poythress also seemed to flex mental muscle. Calipari sort of confirmed that his gushing praise in recent weeks was intended to improve Poythress' self-confidence.

"Alex thinks he's going to kill you," the UK coach said, "so he will."

Said Poythress: "I feel I can compete with the best of them."

Of course, no coach is going to be satisfied until the last dribble of the last game. Calipari mentioned that UK got beat on backdoor cuts a few times. A&M's Alex Caruso beat his man (James Young) off the dribble and got to the basket more than once.

Against "good teams" (CBSSports.com and Ken Pomeroy ranked A&M outside the top 100), such missteps can be costly, Calipari said. So winning is a byproduct of getting better.

"Instead of the results, let's work on just the process," Calipari said. "And that's what we're doing."

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

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