John Clay

Cats can't keep going on talent alone

AUBURN, Ala. — Kentucky's good.

But it better get better.

Not that the script is broken, mind you. Predictability prevails. Kentucky gets big lead. Bad guys storm back. Things get dicey. Stuff starts hanging in the balance. Women and children gasp. Men complain the head guy's getting outcoached.

(Insert Drama Cats music here.)

Then Matt Damon or Tom Cruise or DeMarcus Cousins or even DeAndre Liggins pulls it out at the end. Sequel after sequel.

It's Jan. 17, and the Cats are still unbeaten.

Why complain?

Only here's the thing: "We've got to get better," said John Calipari.

That would be coach-speak if it weren't also true-speak, especially after Kentucky survived a charged-up Auburn — "The crowd was like an energy drink," said the Tigers' Frankie Sullivan — Saturday afternoon, blowing all of a 19-point first-half lead, turning Drama Cat, then pulling out a 72-67 win.

The stat sheet showed Cousins scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Liggins buried a huge three-pointer and later broke the tie with a bucket for a 62-60 lead. John Wall, who for 34 minutes played more like an average freshman on the road than the greatest player since Michael Jordan, scored on a determined drive down the lane.

Let's get real, folks. The Southeastern Conference might be tough but, when it comes to basketball, Auburn does not exactly sit on the conference's top shelf. While Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum was packed with 11,669 patrons, a sizable portion wore blue and spent a good part of the afternoon chanting, "Go Big Blue."

This is the same Auburn that lost 81-55 at Tennessee on Thursday night and had about 36 hours of preparation time before stepping on the floor with the No. 2 team in the country. This is the same Auburn that lost to Missouri State, Sam Houston State, Missouri State and Central Florida. Don't forget Troy.

"What's happening to us, and it's hard for our guys to really accept this," Calipari said afterward, "is you've got every player trying to make their name at our players' expense."

Teams, too. In back-to-back road games, Kentucky has experienced the two extremes of the SEC. Florida is probably the toughest place to play. The Cats played there and won there on Tuesday. From a fan support standpoint, Auburn is probably the easiest. Except, as Calipari said, when a highly ranked foe with a legendary tradition and heralded talent comes calling.

Blow a 19-point lead at Tennessee and, even without Tyler Smith, the Vols will make you pay. Vanderbilt is 3-0 in the league with a win Saturday at South Carolina. (Attention, UK freshmen: You've never played any place like Vandy's Memorial Gym.) Mississippi State is now 3-0 in the conference, with a win at Mississippi. When Kentucky visits Starkville next month, the hyped-up Hump will make Beard-Eaves feel like a hospitality suite.

Kentucky has great talent. No debate. The national media has placed a crown on John Wall. Yet Wall turned it over seven times Saturday, six times in the second half. On Friday, Lebo said Eric Bledsoe is "the second-best point guard in America." On Saturday, Bledsoe was held to nearly half the points (13) he scored at Florida (25) on Tuesday.

Not-so-fun fact: Auburn shot 55.2 percent the second half. That's Auburn.

"These guys are young," said Calipari.

He's right. Cal's newest mantra is that data show that his is the fifth or the 15th or "the youngest team in the country; one of the youngest," as the coach said in Saturday's post-game. He's right. It is young. Youth can improve. It should improve.

Saturday showed that to get where it can go, and where the Big Blue Nation wants it to go, Kentucky had better improve.

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