John Clay

Bahamas trip might have hurt more than helped this Kentucky basketball team

Keldon Johnson not happy despite half-court shot that sent game to OT

Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson talks about the half-court shot he hit to send his team into overtime against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. UK ultimately lost the game 84-83.
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Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson talks about the half-court shot he hit to send his team into overtime against Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. UK ultimately lost the game 84-83.

Don’t worry. Kentucky basketball has time to be fine. In the big picture, December defeats don’t mean much. It’s a long season. The Cats are young, as always. There is plenty of time to learn and grow and put the pieces together.

Having said all that, after watching John Calipari’s team through the first nine games of the 2018-19 season, including last Saturday’s 84-83 overtime loss to Seton Hall in New York, I can’t help ask what might seem like a crazy question.

Did Kentucky’s preseason trip to the Bahamas actually do more harm than good?

How could that be? Doesn’t every team, especially a team with several new players, benefit from preseason experience? Those four exhibition games in the Bahamas gave the Cats a chance to learn about their teammates on and off the court. Team-building, they call it. Travel is broadening.

Plus, Kentucky won all four games in impressive fashion. While Calipari hyped the competition, claiming his team could lose two, three, even all four games on the trip, the Cats went 4-0. They looked as if they had played together all their lives. They showed basketball IQ and teamwork of veteran clubs.

Then Duke happened. The Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Nov. 6 changed everything. The Blue Devils rolled by 34 points. Final score: 118-84. No one saw it coming. Few have believed it since.

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Kentucky Coach John Calipari said after Saturday’s loss to Seton Hall that he still likes the fight in his team. “I’m not discouraged,” he said. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Yes, Duke had a successful foreign preseason trip of its own. The Blue Devils won all three of their August exhibition games north of the border by an average of 33.3 points. Freshmen Cam Reddish and Tre Jones did not participate because of injuries, however. Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team returned to the states with plenty to prove. And did just that.

So are the Blue Devils that much better? Is the gap between the elite players in the class of 2018 — Duke’s RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and Reddish — and UK’s fine freshmen really that wide? Was it simply a matter of everything going right for Duke on a night when everything went wrong for Kentucky?

Or, after the success in the Bahamas, were the Cats overconfident? Even Calipari has raised the possibility his young players thought the transition from high school to college basketball would be easy. At Bankers Life Fieldhouse that night, those players learned differently. The hard way.

The Cats lost their confidence that night. And the eight post-Duke debacle games have been a journey of re-discovery. They’re not there yet. Back in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena, they won seven straight games. None of the victories were particularly impressive, given the strength of the opposition. But they were wins. Until the schedule called for another trip.

Despite what others contend, Saturday’s loss at Madison Square Garden was not a bad loss, per se. Seton Hall did lose four seniors off last year’s NCAA Tournament team. The Pirates entered the game 5-3 with losses to Nebraska, Saint Louis and Louisville. But Kevin Willard is a good coach. Myles Powell can put the ball in the basket from ridiculous angles. The Hall owned height. And it played hard.

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Dr. Michael Huang

“I like that we fought,” said Calipari after the game, adding that if the effort is there, the execution will come. “I’m not discouraged.”

Not all of his fan base is buying into that view. It saw Tennessee beat then No. 1 Gonzaga 76-73 on a neutral floor Sunday. It has watched Auburn and Mississippi State race to identical 8-1 starts. It fears these Cats could be fighting an uphill climb when conference play rolls around. Never mind upcoming non-conference games with North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas.

When you are Kentucky, however, the end of the season is so much more important than the beginning. Calipari is right. It’s March that matters. If the Cats finish with a strong closing kick, we might look back at the Bahamas trip as providing the invaluable positives intended every time.

This time, it might have backfired.

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