Only time can fix what's ailing Kentucky

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 29, 2014 

  • Saturday

    No. 11 Kentucky at Missouri

    When: 1 p.m.

    TV: CBS-27

It's possible that nothing's wrong with Kentucky's basketball team. The 87-82 loss at LSU on Tuesday simply revealed Kentucky for what Kentucky is: A team dependent on freshmen.

Johnny O'Bryant, who led LSU with a season-high 29 points, spoke after the game about capitalizing on Kentucky's inexperience.

"I really tried to attack them," he said. "I knew that they were young guys and I had an advantage in experience and body-wise. I was going at them all night."

O'Bryant isn't the first veteran player to talk about exploiting UK's inexperience. At the Southeastern Conference Media Days in October, Florida senior Patric Young dared to suggest that the heralded Kiddie Cats had a lot to learn.

There's no reason to think that Kentucky's need to learn and grow ended at LSU. As UK Coach John Calipari often says, it's a process to transform a collection of mostly first-year players into a heady, unflappable unit. The loss at LSU could be Exhibit A in making the case that the process must continue for the Cats. At times, it seemed fair to wonder how much progress has been made to date.

Kentucky's defense was inadequate, as evidenced by LSU's 50.8-percent shooting, which is a high for a UK opponent this season.

Twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison shot poorly (7-for-20), played poorly (two assists, five turnovers) and, maybe most discouraging, displayed poor body language. That harkened back to the Nov. 12 game against Michigan State.

"I thought they pouted every bit as much as they were playing," said Dan Dakich, who worked ESPN's telecast of the game as the color commentator. "I thought they just stood around. I thought they reacted every time there was something negative.

"At the end of the game, they started playing a little bit. Knocking down a few shots. They started going after things. Hell, it was a nine- or 10-point game in the last minute."

Willie Cauley-Stein continued to struggle against physical opponents (three points, six rebounds in 17 minutes). Worse, an ESPN camera and Herald-Leader photographer Pablo Alcalá caught Cauley-Stein and UK assistant Kenny Payne engaged in what diplomats call a frank exchange of views on the bench during the game.

"If last night is any example, he's not bought into what Cal wants," Dakich said of Cauley-Stein on Wednesday. "That's fine for Cal. Hell, Cal is going to be fine. But it's not good for the kid."

Dakich suggested that the UK players are not underachieving as much as victims of excessive pre-season hype.

Noting past UK freshmen such as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, Dakich said, "I don't know if there's an NBA all-star on the court for Kentucky. Really good players. (Julius) Randle is terrific. But it takes a special, special group to do what has been set as a standard."

LSU, which might have several future NBA players, jumped on Kentucky from the start. LSU led 22-6 inside the first seven minutes.

"Like typical freshmen, they got it really taken to them by some guys I'm not sure they had a lot of respect for," Dakich said. "They didn't understand how good they were, and got knocked back on their heels, maybe surprised by how intense (LSU played)."

Calipari acknowledged UK was ill-prepared for LSU.

"We weren't ready for the physical part of the game," he said. "We weren't ready for the energy of the game and the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball from the beginning of the game to the end. That is why they won the game. ...

"We are at the point right now that guys have to understand they didn't come out and match the energy of the other team, and this is what happens."

Dakich said he and play-by-play partner Brad Nessler spoke before the telecast about how Kentucky and LSU seemed to be approaching the game differently.

"LSU had a lot more energy in their shootaround and a lot more energy in their warm-up," he said. "A lot of times that doesn't matter, but last night it did."

As for Kentucky, "They looked very nonchalant to me in their warm-up," Dakich said. "They looked very nonchalant to me in their shootaround. ... I don't know what it means, but that's what I saw."

Jordan Mickey, clearly the best freshman in the game, greatly impacted the outcome. He contributed five of LSU's 11 blocks, the most by a UK opponent in Calipari's five seasons as coach.

That kind of shot-blocking contributed to LSU committing only 12 fouls, a season-low for a Kentucky opponent. Prior to LSU, opponents averaged 24.3 fouls. UK, which averaged 32.2 free throw attempts per game, took 13 in Baton Rouge.

On the post-game radio show, Payne spoke of Cauley-Stein needing to play more aggressively. Calipari sounded a hopeful note: Maybe the Cats will learn from defeat.

"We are fine," Calipari said. "We are playing teams that it means something to them to beat us. And we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually.' When you watch it, we're not fine. We will go from here."

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

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