UK Men's Basketball

Cats experiencing growing pains

Daniel Orton had taken — and missed — only one three-pointer all season: against Cleveland State on Nov. 24. Inexplicably, he decided to launch an air ball from beyond the arc with Kentucky trailing by 11 midway through the first half at Tennessee.

Moments earlier, John Wall spun 360 degrees in the air to elude a defender and make a layup. The oohing and aahing had not died down yet when Tennessee dunked five seconds later after UK failed to get back on defense.

Eric Bledsoe and Wall combined for eight turnovers in Knoxville on Saturday. That gave them a combined 101 turnovers in Southeastern Conference play, which almost matches their assist total (116).

"Listen, we're a freshman team," UK Coach John Calipari said on a SEC teleconference Monday. "That's what we are. ... They're all 19 years old. You've got to live with some stuff."

The freshmen have propelled Kentucky to a 27-2 record and No. 3 ranking in this week's poll by The Assciated Press.

As Calipari noted about the Tennessee game, "Those same freshmen got us back in the game."

Led by DeMarcus Cousins and Wall, UK erased a 19-point deficit in the game's final 14 minutes. Freshmen accounted for 21 of 30 points in a stretch that saw the Cats turn a 54-35 deficit into a 65-65 deadlock.

Wall, usually at his best with the game on the line, committed two turnovers in the final 90 seconds.

Coaches like to say freshmen are no longer freshmen by the end of their first season. Not true, South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn said. It's just another mind game coaches play, the former Tates Creek High star said.

"We coaches, we like to think they're not going to be (freshmen) and they've played enough," Horn said. "And try to get them to think that so they play that way."

Georgia Coach Mark Fox, whose team plays host to Kentucky on Wednesday, came close to adopting the cliche that freshmen are no longer freshmen by late season.

"Their freshmen are starting to play like sophomores," Fox said of UK's first-year players. "... You don't see as many freshman plays the way you saw early in the year."

When asked to define these freshmen and sophomore plays, Fox said, "Just plays of experience and inexperience. When to attack. When to shoot. Or when to make the extra pass."

Through this season of many ups and some downs, Calipari has steadfastly refused to call his freshmen anything but freshmen. He's lamented the mistakes and shaken his head as time-and-score considerations got forgotten.

Calipari put the loss at Tennessee in the context of a lesson that needed to be learned.

"Before the game, I told my staff we're going to have to lose one of these games before we finish the season," he said. "... because we think we can play however we want to play, and we'll come back to finish them off at the end."

Then UK rallied to tie it at 65-65. Calipari saw victory straight ahead, which he did not entirely welcome.

"You know how bad I want to win this game," he said he told Assistant John Robic. "But if we do, we'll never be able to tell these guys you can't do this."

Calipari suggested the loss can elevate Kentucky to a higher level of play, which he defined as "intensity of play is one thing. We've got to get back to being intense."

He said he saw too many driving layups that went uncontested.

"There are things we've got to go back to and say, hey, unacceptable," Calipari said.

Bold prediction

If opposing coaches want Calipari's advice, they won't play zone defense against UK. Never mind that the Cats made only two of 22 three-point shots at Tennessee, which made them 12-for-73 (16.4 percent) from beyond the arc in the past four games.

"Everyone will have (a plan): this is how you play them," Calipari said with a touch of sarcasm in his voice. "Yeah, hold your nose and close your eyes and hope we can't make any shots. Yeah, that's a good way to play."

Calipari suggested that if the Cats had made five of 22 threes at Tennessee — "Which stinks," he said — Kentucky would have won "going away."

Uh, three more three-pointers would have been nine points, which was the difference in the game.

UK ranks next to last in three-pointers (5.4 per game) and three-point accuracy (29.1 percent) in league play.

But Calipari likened the attention paid to UK's three-point misses to the criticism of the free-throw shooting of his Memphis teams.

After noting that teams go through "spells" of poor shooting, Calipari made a bold prediction.

"I really believe the difference for us will be our three-point shooting," he said. "When we're finishing the season, people will say, 'Wow, how do you guard them? They makes threes.' "

PT for Harris?

Calipari qualified his post-game comment Saturday about playing Ramon Harris more. "If there's an opportunity," he said.

Harris, who has made four of 26 three-point shots this season, would not seem to be the answer for better three-point shooting from the wing. When asked what Harris provided, Calipari said, "He talks on defense. He does all the right things. He'll come up with tough balls. I believe he can make shots. He's a player around the goal who can score. I have confidence in him.

"It's just the other guys played better at points of the year. So I was playing them."

Cats going through growing pains