Sports

UK hoop's early schedule lacked strength

Kentucky players and Coach John Calipari say a tough early schedule will pay dividends in February and March. But exactly how tough has the season's first month been?

Jerry Palm, the ratings guru for CollegeRPI.com, judged Kentucky's schedule so far as fairly common for a top-flight program.

"I'd call it a typical big-school schedule," Palm wrote in an e-mail. "A few big games, a couple maybes and a bunch of home cooking.

"Not as tough as JC (John Calipari) played at Memphis. But he doesn't need to play as tough a schedule as he played at Memphis."

In other words, the Southeastern Conference will give Kentucky plenty of games to boost its strength of schedule.

Going into the Indiana game on Saturday, UK had a strength of schedule of 135, according to CollegeRPI.com. The Cats had beaten two opponents in the top 150 of the Ratings Percentage Index: North Carolina (No. 63) and Connecticut (No. 14). Five of UK's victories came against opponents with an RPI of 204 or worse: UNC-Asheville (204), Stanford (208), Sam Houston State (220), Cleveland State (235) and Morehead State (245).

Indiana (218) didn't help much, but Kentucky has three more non-conference games against top-100 teams: Austin Peay (82), Long Beach State (28) and Louisville (74).

Kentucky had an even poorer strength of schedule in the Sagarin ratings. Sagarin rated UK's schedule the 285th toughest.

Sagarin saw three UK non-conference opponents in the top 100: North Carolina (14), Connecticut (17) and Louisville (46).

Three other non-conference opponents were in the top 150: Stanford (101), Long Beach State (106) and Indiana (147).

Then came Drexel (154), Rider (155), Austin Peay (171), Sam Houston State (161), Miami (Ohio) (185), Cleveland State (210), Morehead State (271) and UNC-Asheville (312).

Kentucky had a healthy RPI in both the CollegeRPI.com (25) and Sagarin (16).

LeBron on Wall

Cleveland-based sportswriter Tom Withers of The Associated Press got LeBron James' reaction to the play of UK freshman John Wall.

Like everyone else, James was impressed.

"He's great," James said Friday night. "He'll be the No. 1 pick in the draft."

James and Wall have developed what Withers called a "strong relationship." Wall attended James' basketball camps in Akron the past few summers.

So what does James like about Wall's game?

"His speed with the ball," James said. "He's like (Chicago guard) Derrick Rose. Derrick is much stronger than he is, but he has some of the same athleticism that Derrick has and Coach Cal (Kentucky Coach John Calipari) is going to let those type of guys play. He has shown why he came out being the top player in high school and is one of the top five players in college."

Withers noted that attitude problems caused Wall to once be cut from his high school basketball team.

"He won't be cut again, unless he's in a barber's chair," James quipped.

Q & A

Three questions for ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas:

Q: What do you think of John Calipari's dissatisfaction with his unbeaten Kentucky team?

A: "Cal is probably right that UK is not quite as good as its record might indicate. The record is not an indication of how good this team is right now (it can be that good later, though). But, you have to give UK enormous credit for winning all nine games as such a young team. These kids are trying hard and working their tails off. I would think that if this team played the UNC and UConn teams of last year, the record would be 7-2 with two pretty sound beatings. But, that would not change the fact that this team will continue to improve. By March, this team will be really tough."

Q: What should we make of Kentucky reaching 2,000 victories? Significant achievement or merely a round number?

A: "It is mind boggling. But, who did UK beat for 1,000? Historically significant, but not that important for the here and now. UK is one of the iconic programs, and 2,000 will just be a great chance to celebrate that fact."

Q: Do you salute Patrick Patterson for graciously yielding center stage to freshman John Wall?

A: "Patterson is old-school tough. They don't win without him. I'm not surprised he has been so mature and professional. Some guys want to be a pro someday, but Patterson already acts like one. It's great to see him having such a terrific year."

Garden party

Large, enthusiastic crowd. Madison Square Garden (aka the world's most famous arena, as New Yorkers call it). Taut thriller of a game not decided until the final 30 seconds.

Even losing coach Jim Calhoun loved being part of a memorable night.

"Great atmosphere to play college basketball," Calhoun said after UK's 64-61 victory over Connecticut on Wednesday. "It's the best place, in my opinion, to play it."

Fans can argue about the best place to play a college basketball game. I'd vote for Barnhill Arena, the cozy, quirky torture chamber that Arkansas used to call home.

Alas, the UK-UConn game was the exception rather than the rule at Madison Square Garden these days.

The night before, Indiana beat Pittsburgh in a game that drew only 8,975. Many of those fans exited with eight minutes to go in the game because the last trains for the night were leaving midtown Manhattan.

Jim O'Connell, the longtime college basketball editor for The Associated Press, noted the sagging attendance for college basketball in the Garden.

"I think college basketball has killed itself with so many games on TV," he said.

That sagging interest may have been reflected earlier the day UK played UConn. Madison Square Garden celebrated 75 years of playing host to college basketball games.

Such notables as Oscar Robertson, John Thompson and Cazzie Russell fielded questions at a news conference.

Yet only the New York Times, New York Daily News, The Associated Press and one television station covered the event. No New York Post. No Newsday. None of the New Jersey-based suburban newspapers.

UK-UConn revisited

Leftovers from the UK-UConn game:

■ Depending on your point of view, UK and UConn either set back basketball more than 20 years or demonstrated the game as it was meant to be played.

The teams made the three-point shot irrelevant, combining to make four of 18 shots from beyond the arc (none in the first 26 minutes).

The Cats made a season-low three treys. UConn made only one, which surprisingly was not a season low. The inside-oriented Huskies did not make a three (in four attempts) in an earlier loss to Duke.

The three-pointer adds excitement and renders no lead safe, but surely no one complained about the inside-the-arc slugfest.

■ Kentucky improved its record to 2-0 against ranked teams this season. The Cats had been 5-14 in their previous 19 games against ranked teams going into this season.

The last time UK beat the first two ranked teams on its schedule was 1999-2000: victories over No. 16 Utah (56-48) and No. 24 Maryland (61-58).

UK's next game against a ranked opponent may be at Florida on Jan. 12. The Cats won their first three games against a ranked opponent in 1998-99.

■ UConn missed a chance to become only the third program since World War II to be unbeaten against Kentucky in a series consisting of two or more games. So that exclusive club continues to include only Georgetown (which beat UK in 1922 and then again in the famous 3-for-33 Final Four game of 1984) and Southern Cal (which beat UK in 1959-60, 1961-62 and in the 2001 NCAA Tournament).

Where are they now?

Keith Smart, whose jumper won the 1987 national championship for Indiana, is the interim head coach of the Golden State Warriors. He's at the helm while Don Nelson recovers from a bout of pneumonia.

"He's done a terrific job, especially in leading the team," guard C.J. Watson told the San Francisco Chronicle. "He gets us ready to come out for games, he really prepares us mentally, and he keeps us upbeat and free."

Nelson is expected to return against San Antonio on Wednesday. The Warriors were 4-10 under Nelson and 3-4 in the first seven games coached by Smart.

"It's pretty much the same thing, because Smart has been under Nellie for years," guard Monta Ellis told the Chronicle. "He's learned a lot and he wants to do the same things: play pressure defense, run the break and play Warriors basketball."

Smart is in his seventh season with the Warriors and is unofficially known as the NBA's only "defensive coordinator." He is widely considered the heir apparent to Nelson.

West goes south

West Coast Cats fan Chris Thompson reports that it's a good season to heap scorn on the Pacific-10 Conference.

At 2-5 going into a game against Mississippi State on Saturday, UCLA was off to its worst start since the 2002-03 season.

Oregon State, 4-3 going into a game at Nebraska on Saturday, recently lost to Sacramento State. Sac State had a 2-28 record last season.

Southern Cal began with a 2-4 record. The victories came against UC-Riverside and Coppin State.

Perfect, not unique

Many media outlets have reported UK to be the only school to have unbeaten men's and women's basketball teams. If you consider John Calipari's tweets a media outlet, he has, too.

One problem. It's not true.

Syracuse has the same unbeaten duo. Jim Boeheim's men's team takes a 9-0 record into Sunday's home game against St. Francis (N.Y.). Later in the day, the Syracuse women's team (8-0) plays Dartmouth.

Not that Calipari and UK women's coach Matthew Mitchell should not take bows. The men are 10-0 after beating Indiana on Saturday.

Mitchell's women's team (8-0) plays visiting Florida A&M on Sunday (1 p.m. tip-off).

Bad times

If you feel like lamenting a dip in your favorite school's athletic fortunes, think of the poor fans of Fordham University. Only two Fordham teams had winning records in the 2008-09 school year.

Happy birthday

To former UK wing Kelenna Azubuike. He turns 26 on Wednesday.

Azubuike, who plays for the Golden State Warriors, underwent surgery Nov. 18 to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee.

Azubuike had played in nine games this season (seven starts), and was averaging 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists, one block and 25.7 minutes.

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