UK Men's Basketball

Jay Bilas: Playing time squabbles, media scrutiny could derail Kentucky's season

NASSAU, Bahamas — After watching Kentucky's first three exhibition games here, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas does not scoff at the 40-0 question. It can be asked. An undefeated record is plausible.

"Sure," Bilas said Thursday.

A moment later, he said, "There's nobody out there that Kentucky can't beat."

Of course, the vagaries of a season — injuries, a starburst performance by an opponent, what the NBA calls "scheduled losses" — make 40-0 unlikely. Bilas said he would not be seriously thinking about an unbeaten record anytime soon.

"Can they? Yes," he said answering his own question. "Will I be sitting there on the edge of my seat going, 'Here we go?' No."

If the question can be asked late in the season, about the time of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Bilas said, he'd then be intrigued. "Then we can talk," he said. "But that's a long way off."

[Related story: Antigua lauds Calipari's ability to manage talent, depth]

As first impressions go, Kentucky has made a 40-0 statement in the three exhibition games. Bilas sat courtside as color commentator on the ESPNU telecasts (the final three games are on the new SEC Network) in stunned admiration.

"My jaw was on the floor watching them," he said of the Cats. "I think they're really good. The sheer size, length, athleticism, and the frightening depth they've got is really impressive."

With Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, each of whom has not played here, Kentucky seemingly can go 12 deep.

"Now, there's no way 12 guys are going to play," Bilas said. "I'm not sure that's possible. ...

"I don't see anybody who has better personnel. Another (team) may do something better. They may shoot it better. Something like that. But that's a (UK) team that's got a chance to be special, I think."

A possible pitfall was the subject of a talk Bilas delivered to the Kentucky team Wednesday night. He played off the theme noted this summer by UK Coach John Calipari. Toughness, which Bilas explored in a 2013 book with that title, was his message.

He wasn't talking about knocking heads as much as a steely resolve not to be affected by distractions and adversity. As Florida Coach Billy Donovan noted during his teams' national championships of 2006 and 2007, distraction and adversity are part of every season, even the most successful.

As often noted in recent Kentucky seasons, there has been no unbeaten Division I team since Indiana in 1975-76. For all its success, Kentucky has only had one: 25-0 in 1953-54.

"It's hard," Bilas said. "It's really hard.

"They're (UK players) going to have to show — and they're not alone — a lot of mental toughness and togetherness in a year they're expected to win," he said. "There are going to be a lot of instances during the season where they could be divided by things that are said by outsiders."

Playing time, or the lack of it, figures to be a topic of discussion.

"The players are not going to play the minutes their talent would demand at another place," Bilas said.

The media coverage figures to change as the season unfolds, Bilas said. As the games, and presumably the victories, pile up, nits will be picked. Supposed weaknesses and potential problems probed in print, electronic and cyber forums.

"It's not going to be enough for us to talk about how good they are," Bilas said. "We're going to talk about what's wrong with them. Should so-and-so be playing more minutes? And why aren't they doing this?

"If they let that kind of talk creep into their team setting, it can makes things more difficult."

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