All the hype over Kentucky basketball’s blowout-filled start obscured one important point about the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
The Cats hadn’t really played anybody.
Yes, they put a Big Apple beating on Michigan State 69-48 in the Champions Classic, but Michigan State isn’t really Michigan State. Not this year. Not yet. Tom Izzo lost a pair of his big guys to injury before the season started. He’s already publicly apologized for scheduling more than his young Spartans can handle.
True, Big Blue Nation went nuts over the way the Cats ran Arizona State out of the Bahamas 115-69 on Monday. ASU Coach Bobby Hurley referred to it as an out-of-body experience, but the fact of the matter is the Sun Devils don’t have enough talented bodies. They were 15-17 last season. They are 4-3 this season.
UCLA is different. The Bruins are good. Very good. Possibly Final Four good. They proved that Saturday, rolling into Rupp Arena for the first time in their storied history and celebrating the occasion by executing an impressive 97-92 win, snapping a 42-game UK homecourt winning streak.
“We’re trying to get from good to great,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said afterward. “We’re not there yet.”
Prematurely labeled as great, Kentucky was exposed as a team that right now is merely good.
One glaring example, Kentucky doesn’t have a T.J. Leaf. UCLA does. For all the pregame pontifications about the fab freshman showdown between UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and UK’s De’Aaron Fox, Leaf was often the best player on the floor Saturday. The 6-foot-10 freshman from El Cajon, California scored 17 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out five assists.
“He basically dominated the game,” said UK coach John Calipari.
Domination had been Kentucky’s calling card. And given the outrageous athleticism on this year’s team, coupled with the domination shown in that 7-0 start, there were already comparisons being made to the 2014-15 team that won 38 straight before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. There were even those ready to declare this team the superior version. Saturday slammed the brakes on that.
Already the best shooting team in the nation, UCLA shot 53 percent Saturday. That’s the best an opponent has shot against a Calipari team since Wichita State shot 55.1 percent in that terrific second-round game of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. If you’ll remember, Wichita State was unbeaten before taking a 78-76 loss.
Meanwhile, Kentucky had just 16 assists on its made 33 baskets. It missed nine of 27 free throws. It was outrebounded by three (41-38) and missed a variety of shots around the rim. When Isaiah Briscoe wasn’t missing 10 of his 14 attempts, the sophomore guard was stepping on the end line under his own basket. He did that three times.
On Friday, Calipari discounted the notion that despite the high-scoring résumés — both were averaging more than 95 points a game — that Saturday would be decided by defense. He said the affair would be a “shot-maker’s game” where a team has to make shots.
In Saturday’s postgame interview, Calipari had changed his tune. “For us, this wasn’t about offense,” he said. “We weren’t a disciplined enough team defensively.”
Afterward, the Cats were the disappointed team. Actually, Bam Adebayo appeared mad. After making just four of 12 shots, the freshman center’s comments were short and to the point. There were no hints of the famous Bam smile. “We’ve just got to fight,” he said.
Teammate Malik Monk, the freshman who scored a game-high 24 points, was more philosophical. He said UCLA did a great job. He agreed there were defensive breakdowns. He said the Cats needed this game to find out where they are right now.
So where are they?
“A November team; a December team, an early-December team like Cal would say,” Monk said. “But we have a couple of more months to keep working and get better every day.”
Saturday showed there’s plenty of work to do.
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