With Kentucky having perhaps the least experienced team in college basketball history, John Calipari kept reminding anyone who would listen that this season would involve growing pains.
Perhaps the basketball gods found humor that this unavoidable truism came to life in the city known as The Big Easy.
A half-empty Smoothie King Arena served as an odd setting for a discordant Kentucky performance. UK lost 83-75 to UCLA despite runs of 13-0 in the first half and 13-2 in the second.
Calipari summed up a frustrating game by saying, “We’re better than this.”
In the end, Kentucky’s age — or lack thereof — showed in multiple ways: defensive breakdowns. Settling too often for jump shots. Perhaps most alarming, Calipari questioned his players’ competitive will.
“Where the winning spirit?” he said. “Where the will to win? When’s the tough plays when it’s time to do something? And then I’m trying to out-trick another coach who can coach.”
Kentucky had a chance to win. But buoyed by more seasoned players, UCLA made more plays in the clutch.
“This is really hard with young kids, and no real veteran leadership,” Calipari said. “I mean, UCLA had three guys who played in that Sweet 16 game. … Now, their freshmen helped them today. They did what they’re supposed to do. But their veterans were the guys that really hurt us.”
Those vets were senior center Thomas Welsh, who posted a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds), junior guard Aaron Holiday (20 points, eight assists) and handy senior G.G. Goloman (seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals).
When asked what he hoped the Cats could learn from this loss, Calipari said, “As much as you hate to say it, you’ve got to get knocked in the mouth and lose. It’s got to hurt every player. And then they start figuring out, ‘OK, I’m not going to be able to play the way I want to play.’”
Calipari seemed to suggest the Cats are susceptible to seeking to score style points rather than make prudent, higher-percentage plays.
“Making the easiest play they can make,” he said before adopting a player’s voice, “‘Yeah, but I don’t get an ooh and an ahh when I make an easy play. I like to make the look-away, throw-over-my-shoulder pass.’
“That’s what we’re dealing with right now. You know what? They’re getting better. They’re so much better than they were a month ago. Today, we played a team that wanted the game worse than we wanted it.”
UK’s shootaround practice earlier in the day added to Calipari’s puzzlement. It was a great workout, he said.
“But it shows you you just don’t know,” Calipari said. “They’re young. Who knows what they’re thinking.”
Calipari offered a couple possibilities.
“‘Well, we made it. We’re a top-10 team,’” he said of what the players might have thought. “What?!”
Or, “‘We’re good. Watch me today on CBS.’
“You don’t know what a 17-, 18-year-old is thinking,” Calipari said.
The game featured ebbs and flows in momentum.
Late in the first half saw an especially frenetic trip down court for Kentucky that suggested UK wanted it more. At least for a while. One, two, three times the Cats drove to the basket with purpose and get-out-of-the-way determination.
After the third miss, Sacha Killeya-Jones grabbed a UCLA player around the shoulders and pulled him to the court. Message: UK would compete.
Perhaps not-so-incidentally, the sequence came late in a 13-0 run that gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead: 34-28.
But such zeal came and went in a first half that ended with what seemed like a fitting score: 39-39.
UCLA had the initiative early. As UK settled for jumpers, the Bruins did the driving.
Two substitutes — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Wenyen Gabriel — changed the tone of the game with aggressive play.
Later, PJ Washington ripped a rebound from senior Ikenna Okwarabizie and dunked.
Late the half, UCLA switched to a zone defense. That seemed to drain the aggressiveness from UK, which had only one basket in the final three minutes: a putback by Kevin Knox.
UCLA got off well in the second half. Back-to-back threes put UK down 45-39 and prompted a timeout with 18:36 left.
The timeout did not make an immediate difference. Quade Green turned the ball over, leading to a breakaway layup.
A three-pointer by Prince Ali put UCLA ahead 50-39 with 17:47 left. That marked the first double-digit lead for either team.
A switch to a zone defense seemed to befuddle UCLA. The Bruins went scoreless for more than two and one-half minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky scored nine straight points to inspire a Go-Big-Blue chant and, more importantly, get back into the game.
Both teams had to show resolve. In one stretch of less than two minutes, UK and UCLA each made a pair of threes. This back-to-back-to-back-to-back exchange left Kentucky facing a 64-59 deficit with less than 11 minutes left.
Kentucky got within four points of UCLA three times down the stretch. But UK got no closer.
“As a coach, all I’m thinking about in a game like this is how do I keep this thing close?” Calipari said. “See if we have a will to win if we got it close. And we did. And we didn’t have it. That’s what I’m disappointed (about).”
Louisville at No. 7 Kentucky
1 p.m. Friday (CBS-27)