NEW YORK — From Kentucky Coach John Calipari's perspective, a collection of talented players — not a team — beat Kansas on Tuesday night.
"We don't believe we truly have to play together yet," Calipari said after UK's 75-65 victory over Kansas in the Champions Classic.
Though memorable because of the setting (Madison Square Garden) and the event (Mike Krzyzewski became college basketball's winningest coach in the first game), Calipari saw the victory as a cautionary tale. A retooling Kansas in the early season, and maybe quite a few other teams, can be beaten by talent alone. But it takes a team's united purpose to beat the best when it matters most.
"This team has a chance to be special if they choose to," Calipari said. "But they've got to come together. Everybody thinks talent wins. No. Talented players that play together (win)."
Calipari cited Kentucky's first half as an example of individual play trumping the team concept. In the opening 20 minutes, Kentucky had four assists and 12 turnovers. This flew in the face of Calipari's catchy early-season slogan: UK players should complete each other, not compete with each other.
The UK coach saw a warning sign on the game's first shot: a three-pointer by freshman big man Anthony Davis.
"Good start," Calipari said with a sarcastic tone.
The setting and a matchup of two ranked teams — No. 2 UK and No. 12 Kansas — led to almost inevitable questions about comparing this Kentucky to its two Calipari-led predecessors. Those teams advanced to the Elite Eight (2009-10) and Final Four (2010-11).
It became clear that Kentucky's team last season won its way into Calipari's heart.
"That really was a good team," he said. "They did it offensively, defensively, creating good shots, did not turn the ball over, got great looks every time down, and did not have the talent of this team.
"This is not a good team yet. We're not bad, but we're not a good team yet."
The key word seemed to be "yet."
Calipari lamented how UK players diverted from called plays against Kansas, especially in the first half.
"They were going to do their own thing," he said of the players' mindset going into the game, "and they did."
As a corrective measure, Calipari threatened to bench any player that did not execute the called play.
Of course, Calipari also found pleasure in the game. For instance, he saluted how the Cats shook off an early seven-point deficit, then dominated in the second half.
"They had a will to win," he said. "That's what I wanted to see. That's the hardest thing to teach."
Kentucky's resolve caught Kansas by surprise.
"I thought we'd win the game at halftime," Kansas Coach Bill Self said. "Our players thought we'd win the game."
Then, he added, Kentucky "punched" Kansas in the face, figuratively speaking, to start the second half.
For Kansas, the game served as an instructional video. Self said his team squandered a chance to change the tone of the second half by building a sizable halftime lead.
"Oh, absolutely," he said.
Self suggested that part of the reason was his team's lack of experience in "big-boy" games.
Kentucky faces many such games going forward. With a knowing smile, Self suggested that Calipari's commentary on talent-versus-team should be placed in the context of the early season. Not that the UK coach's observations lacked validity. But at this time of year, any coach needs to steer his players away from self-congratulations.
"He has to make sure — in the second game of the season — they're grounded," Self said. "You don't trust young kids to go out there and (hear), 'Hey, you guys are terrific.' Next thing you know, maybe they start believing it."