UK Men's Basketball

Jelling woes linger for Kentucky's young basketball team

Kentucky Wildcats guard James Young (1) had his shot blocked as he drove baseline as #11 Kentucky played #18 North Carolina  on Saturday December 14, 2013 in  Chapel Hill, NC.  Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats guard James Young (1) had his shot blocked as he drove baseline as #11 Kentucky played #18 North Carolina on Saturday December 14, 2013 in Chapel Hill, NC. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

As Kentucky Coach John Calipari likes to say, only crisis brings about the change necessary to produce success. So in that sense, Kentucky's 82-77 loss at Saturday can be the darkness before the dawn. Or as former UK Coach Rick Pitino put it, the fertilizer that fuels growth.

Calipari could only hope the loss, which dropped UK to 0-3 against ranked teams, would convince a collection of talented individuals to unite.

That all-important crossing of a Rubicon will come "when they hit the spot (and realize) we have to do this together," he said. "We're just not there right now."

North Carolina provided UK with an example of how troubled times can lead to a transformation. The indefinite suspensions of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald forced the Tar Heels to reassess this season. Alarming losses to Belmont and UAB heightened concern, but also strengthened a team resolve.

"This group does a better job of staying together through adversity than last year's group," said Marcus Paige, who scored 23 points against UK. "If a team makes a run, we don't fold. Or we haven't folded yet."

That kind of qualifier suggested how fragile team chemistry can be.

"We've done a good job staying the course, as our coaches always say," Paige said. "Last year, if a couple of things went wrong, we could end up being down 20 just like that. This team is a little bit more mentally tough.

"Part of that comes from myself and James Michael (McAdoo) playing a bunch of minutes, having experience and helping these young guys through it."

Nowadays, a sophomore like Paige qualifies as a graybeard. He averaged 29.2 minutes per game last season as a freshman. McAdoo, a junior, had played 1,670 minutes for UNC going into this season.

McAdoo, before a target of criticism for not quite living up to expectations, scored 20 points, grabbed five rebounds and equalled a career high with four assists.

When asked about Julius Randle's eagerness to play UNC and his subsequent quiet 11-point, five-rebound performance, Calipari said, "Maybe too excited. Because McAdoo made a statement."

Of course, Kentucky lacks the kind of experience Paige and McAdoo brought to the game. The Cats are at an earlier stage of the development.

Surprising, North Carolina did not collapse defenders around Randle. The Tar Heels played man-to-man defense most of the game. Still, Randle got special attention.

"We tried to deny him the ball," UNC Coach Roy Williams said. And when Randle got it, "we tried to give the guy guarding him help, particularly on the low block."

Foul trouble limited Randle to 11 first-half minutes, thus inhibiting his chance to dominate.

Williams noted a telling sign that occurred midway through the second half. He said Steve Kirschner, UNC's senior associate athletic director for communications, pointed out after the game that with the score tied at 46-46, the Tar Heels' next five baskets came from five different players.

"I love that balance," Williams said. "I always think that's the most difficult thing to do."

That's sort of what Kentucky seeks: a selfless, we're-all-in-this-together approach. A reporter asked Calipari why the example of the 2011-12 UK team, led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, did not compel the current Cats to display a similar esprit de corps, at least not yet.

"It's just hard to do it that way," Calipari said. "'Let me do it this other way because it's a lot easier.' Problem is it doesn't work that way."

Williams and North Carolina players tempered media enthusiasm to now label the Tar Heels a well-oiled machine.

"I don't know that we've figured it out and we're clicking like no other team," Paige said. "But guys understand their roles better. Guys are accepting the challenge to step up and produce when they get the chance. It's fun to watch freshmen get thrown out there and struggle early and then come alive. ...

"It's cool to see our team grow and accept the fact we're all going to have to step up as a group."

Perhaps the loss of Hairston and McDonald provided the crisis that united the Tar Heels. But unity can be elusive.

"We're such a young group," Williams said, "and sometimes an immature group. You don't want to get them too fat and happy."


Belmont at Kentucky

When: Noon


Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader