Way back in the preseason, back before the first ball had been tipped, before the loss to Kansas in Chicago and the loss to UCLA in New Orleans, back before SEC play began, John Calipari would half-joke about the panic button.
If practice was going well, the Kentucky basketball coach would say he had removed one foot from the panic button. If matters had regressed a bit, he’d again reference the panic button, only in a less positive light.
After Cal’s Cats blew a 14-point second-half lead and collapsed in Columbia on Tuesday night, falling 76-68 at South Carolina, no doubt a sizable cross-section of the Big Blue Nation is sitting directly atop that panic button.
Here’s an alternate take. It’ll be all right. Take a breath. It’ll be fine. While a loss to a team with a kenpom.com rating of 69 is nothing to write home about, it’s not necessarily a source for alarm.
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I know, I know, ESPN’s Seth Greenberg went on a Wednesday morning “SportsCenter” screed blasting Kentucky’s players and college basketball freshmen in general as being “spoiled” and entitled. Hey, Seth, if true, could the way the Worldwide Leader covers the sport have anything to do with that?
For me, someone actually at Colonial Life Center on Tuesday, this game had a stand-alone feel. Whenever Kentucky basketball comes to town, South Carolina offers plenty of audible atmosphere.
They’ve stormed the court twice after beating the Cats. Before Tuesday, Calipari had been ejected two of his previous three trips. The combination of the Cock crowing over the public address system, “Sandstorm” playing during timeouts and screaming students seated next to the floor cranks the Carolina crazy up a notch.
So, No. 1, Kentucky’s freshmen had never been exposed to quite that type of environment. And, No. 2, the young Cats had not yet played quite that type of team, Frank Martin’s collection of grinders that approaches basketball as a contact sport.
There were 59 fouls called Tuesday. Kentucky committed 32, South Carolina 27. After initially resisting, UK’s youngsters eventually slipped into South Carolina’s style of play, scrapping, hacking and clanging shots. Remember, South Carolina shot 27.1 percent and won at Georgia last Saturday. It shot 37.7 percent Tuesday and won again.
“Defense and rebounding,” said Martin on Tuesday, “is what keeps you in games.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky is currently a team in a state of flux. After missing the season’s first 17 games thanks to a preseason foot injury, freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt made his collegiate debut. For a first-timer who played 14 minutes, Vanderbilt looked good. He can handle the ball. He can pass the ball. He can rebound.
“I saw Jarred play a lot in high school, I think he’s real good,” Martin said afterward. “I think the guy they miss is Quade Green.”
Kentucky’s starting point guard has now missed three games with a back strain. He didn’t even make the trip to Columbia. Neither did frontcourt strongman Tai Wynyard, out with an illness, who could have given Calipari some minutes Tuesday while the Cats dealt with widespread foul trouble.
With Green gone, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has had to shoulder the entire point guard load. He’s been brilliant, averaging 21.8 points in UK’s four conference wins. In the Cats’ two losses, however, he’s averaged 4.5 points. Tuesday night, he scored six points with six turnovers and zero assists. South Carolina knows how to scout.
Do the Cats know how to react? As much as people are tired of hearing it, they are freshmen. As much as people don’t want to hear it, there are more lessons to learn, thus more losses before the regular season is through.
If the Cats are as spoiled and entitled as Greenberg suggests, a panic button won’t be enough when March rolls around. To this point, however, the Cats have responded to their previous three losses with much better efforts. I’m expecting the same Saturday night when Florida rolls into Rupp Arena. Breathe.
Florida at No. 18 Kentucky
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)