Although Kentucky has not lost since the opening-night debacle against Duke, the assumption of the all-knowing omnipotent coach has been bruised.
Not once but twice in this young season UK’s basketball brain trust has committed a turnover. Only 58 seconds into the game against North Dakota, Nick Richards replaced PJ Washington. “They messed the starting lineup up,” Washington said after the game. “I wasn’t supposed to start. It was supposed to be Nick.”
Then against UNC Greensboro last weekend, Kentucky opened the game with Keldon Johnson guarding Francis Alonso. Alonso scored 11 points inside the first four minutes.
“We were wrong,” Coach John Calipari said of the Johnson-Alonso matchup. “No, he was not supposed to start on him. And we were down 5-0 because we put the wrong guy on him in the locker room. I’m, like, why is Keldon guarding this guy? Because I knew who was supposed to be guarding him.”
Tyler Herro said he had defended the Alonso stand-in during the pre-game shootaround. Ultimately, Ashton Hagans defanged Alonso.
“Uh, I think we just had a miscommunication on who was supposed to guard him,” Johnson said. “And it’s our fault. We should have asked questions.”
Rather than second-guessing Calipari, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas saluted the UK coach for acknowledging the misstep.
“The thing that sets John Calipari apart is he admits it,” Bilas said. “There are a lot of times when things happen. I’ve known things have happened with other coaches. They haven’t admitted it afterward. Like they say, ‘No, no, no. It was all planned.’ They don’t broadcast that (mistake) in the media.
“John is very secure. He doesn’t care that somebody may take that the wrong way. I can tell you he is in the minority of coaches who would do it that way.”
When Calipari admitted the mistake against UNC Greensboro, the mind drifted to a Kentucky game against Texas A&M five years earlier. Calipari said his staff convinced him to assign freshman Alex Poythress the job of defending Elston Turner. The Big Blue Nation heard the term “beer muscles” that night as Turner hit shots and then kept hitting shots en route to a 40-point performance. UK lost 83-71.
Human error also occurred in the 2007 NCAA Tournament. Somehow Kentucky’s starting lineup for a first-round game against Villanova included freshman walk-on Dwight Perry.
“It wasn’t until just before the buzzer sounded for the National Anthem that somebody told me,” Perry recalled this week. “It was a wild experience.”
Not only was he starting for the first and only time, the mistake happened in the NCAA Tournament game in Chicago’s United Center.
“Where Michael Jordan played,” Perry said. “All that stuff is crazy.”
His cousin, Bobby Perry, was supposed to be the starter. Rather than accept a technical foul that goes with changing a starting lineup already submitted to the scorer’s table, then-UK Coach Tubby Smith decided to make the Perry-for-Perry substitution at the first dead ball.
“All the while, in my mind, I’m thinking, whatever happens, don’t let this first play contribute to us not doing well,” Dwight Perry said.
Moral of the story: Mistakes happen. Kentucky won 67-58.
Joe Lombardi made this point during a telephone conversation prior to his Indiana-Pennsylvania team playing Kentucky in a preseason exhibition game.
“I always like to tell people, I get the first guess,” he said. “Everybody else gets the second guess, OK. As a coach, I’m just guessing half the time.”
Mike Tranghese, consultant for the Southeastern Conference and a former commissioner of the Big East, offered a correction. “I would call it an educated guess,” he said of the decisions coaches make.
Of course, sometimes the coaching decisions are well-founded, but simply don’t work.
“The other team has responses to (your) answers,” Lombardi said.
Bilas echoed that sentiment. He recalled his playing days at Duke. “We’d go through these intense scouting reports,” he said. “We’re going to take away this. We’re going to take away that. We’re going to deny this pass. And we used to laugh. It’s going to be a shutout. And it never is.”
Bilas cited another factor: Kentucky’s relative inexperience. Ken Pomeroy’s calculation rates UK as the second-least experienced team in Division I.
“When you have a young team, which they do, communication is a big deal,” Bilas said. “When things are changing all the time, it hasn’t been as smooth. So there are different lineups and different players playing, maybe relied on in different circumstances games to game. So people are adjusting constantly.
“So,” he added of UK’s early-season missteps, “I don’t think it’s all that big of a deal.”
No. 10 Kentucky vs. Seton Hall
Noon Saturday in City Hoops Classic in Madison Square Garden in New York (Fox-56)