Billy Gillispie is right.
This can be a very good Kentucky basketball team.
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It has talent. It has long arms and a deep bench. It has a force down low in Patrick Patterson, and an outside scorer in Jodie Meeks. In the half-court, it can be among a handful of the best defensive teams in all the land.
And, indeed, the Cats showed pieces of that and more in beating undermanned Indiana 72-54 on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
But for the Cats to reach their potential, one continuing annoyance must be corrected.
The Cats have to stop turning over the basketball.
It was that habit that helped IU outscore the Cats 41-36 in the second half. And after leading 32-6 with just less than eight minutes to go in the first half, the hosts were outscored 48-40 the rest of the way by a team that has been drummed by the better clubs on its schedule.
"If we continue to get better offensively taking care of the basketball with our guards," said a curiously sunny Gillispie afterward, "I think we're getting ready for a steamroll."
Kentucky committed 23 on the day, compared to 20 for the visiting Hoosiers. There were 11 in the first half, 12 in the second. Freshman DeAndre Liggins turned it over six times in 23 minutes. Meeks' stat line showed no assists and three turnovers. Perry Stevenson turned it over three times. Most everyone turned it over at least once or twice.
"We got a little soft with the ball," admitted Gillispie before quickly refilling the glass. "But I'll take 23 turnovers and a big win over a rival. I'll take that any day."
Problem is, this wasn't just any ordinary day. For starters, Indiana is a ripped-up rival, its capabilities carved back through probation and transfers. Give the Hoosiers credit. Coach Tom Crean strides the sideline with purpose. His players give their knees to bruises, their elbows to loose skin. Down 36-13 at the half, the Hoosiers could have started planning their iPod playlists for the long bus ride back to Bloomington. Instead, they brought some second-half fight.
But let's be real here. This Indiana lost by 38 to Notre Dame, by 26 to St. Joseph's, by 25 to Wake Forest, by 16 to Gonzaga. It entered Rupp a 16-point underdog and departed an 18-point loser. It might easily be the least talented IU basketball team we've seen in years, and the worst we'll see in years.
Yet against that kind of competition, UK turnovers returned like a bad rash.
It was the fifth time in 10 starts Kentucky has turned the ball over at least 20 times, matching its total for all of last season. It committed 25 turnovers against VMI, 28 at North Carolina, 31 in the Las Vegas win over Kansas State, 23 in the win over West Virginia, now 23 against an undermanned Indiana.
It's the holidays, true, but the Cats have to cut back on this giving spree. Those are just too many empty possessions, too many times the Cats have made the first pass on the opponent's fast break.
If a team can't protect the ball against Indiana, how will it protect the ball against better teams, much better teams?
Don't tell that to Gillispie, mind you. Not Saturday, anyway. Afterward, you'd have thought his team had beaten the Celtics. He called the Cats' half-court defense "as good as it gets." He claimed not to care that after starting out a blazing 12-for-14 from the field, they cooled considerably to 14-for-38. He made that we're-about-to-be-a-steamroller-baby comment.
"We got a really good win, and I couldn't be more happy," he said.
Maybe the coach just wants his Cats to enter finals week with a positive attitude.
"He told us to make sure we walk out of the locker room happy," said Meeks.
But for this team to keep that smile, it has to do one little thing.
Stop turning it over.