John Clay

Kentucky has a long way to go to improve

John Clay
John Clay

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Good thing it's a long season.

Because this Kentucky basketball team has a long way to go.

A long way to go.

Yes, North Carolina is the No. 1 team in the nation. Yes, the Tar Heels had the benefit of being at home Tuesday night in the Dean Dome.

Yes, even without Tyler Hansbrough, reigning NCAA Player of the Year, and starting forward Marcus Ginyard, the Heels have enough top-shelf talent to inflict pain on the best of college basketball teams.

But so much of the pain Kentucky felt in its 77-58 loss to North Carolina on this particular night was self-inflicted. Again.

Seventeen turnovers in the first half, same as the first-half count last Friday when the Cats were stunned by VMI at Rupp Arena. Twenty-eight turnovers for the game, up one from the final count in that eight-point loss to the Keydets.

"I thought we played a fantastic first 10-to-12 mintues," declared UNC Coach Roy Williams afterward.

But Kentucky was equally dreadful, again. There are slow starts and then there is the way the Cats have started this season: careless with the basketball, throwing sloppy passes, being weak with the dribble, failing to execute the simples of passes.

North Carolina ended up taking 70 shots.

Kentucky ended up taking 45.

You can't win like that.

(Never mind that Jodie Meeks took 20 of those 45 shots, making only five.)

Billy Gillispie credited North Carolina's defense, and the Heels defense was excellent for the most part, but too often the Cats made it look all too easy.

For a guy who says it's "all about practice," you wonder what goes on in those practices.

"Too many mental mistakes," said Gillispie.

Freshman Darius Miller committed five turnovers, with no assists, in just 13 minutes. Ramon Harris and Jodie Meeks each turned it over six times. Michael Porter and DeAndre Liggins committed four turnovers apiece.

Yet afterward, Gillispie was surprisingly upbeat, making a particular point to rave over the second-half play of Liggins — the freshman did contribute five assists against just one turnover in 13 second-half minutes — calling the rookie a "very, very, very talented player," and saying that the Chicago native just needed more help from the people around him.

And maybe Gillispie is right that Liggins will be the answer, or maybe the coach is just grasping for a life jacket while his boat is in danger of sinking before it barely leaves the dock.

"I don't think we're as far off as you might think," said Billy G.

Could be. But through two games, from a ball-handling standpoint — and isn't that where it all starts? — these Cats sure appear nowhere near the team that saw Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley and (the forgotten) Derrick Jasper handle the orb a season ago.

"I don't think you can flip it (overnight)," said Gillispie when asked about curing the turnover problem, but then added, "I thought we showed major improvement from one half to the next."

Did they? Or did Carolina lose focus a little in the second half — "meander," was Williams' description — which is the natural thing to do for a team that raced to an early 25-6 lead, that was up 41-25 at intermission, that knew from start to finish it was clearly the superior squad.

Even without Tyler Hansbrough.

Even without Marcus Ginyard.

"I think we're going to be alright," said Billy Gillispie.

Well, it is a long, long season.

For Kentucky, maybe that's a good thing.