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By LARRY VAUGHT
From the Montevallo perspective, Kentucky played like the No. 1 team. From Kentucky coach John Calipari’s perspective, it was not nearly that good even if it was better than what he saw in the previous exhibition win over Transylvania.
Kentucky struggled more than many expected before winning 95-72 Monday night.
“The biggest thing I can tell you is that we long way to go, but we made strides,” said Calipari. “We are not a good team right now. We have a nice collection of guys, but we’re not a good team.”
Montevallo guard Troran Brown, who scored 30 points but missed 22 of 34 shots, was impressed by what he saw from the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll.
“Definitely as good as I thought they would be. They just run you. Athletic. Play hard. It was pretty hard to compete with them,” Brown said. “Bigger, stronger guys. Not that much we could do.”
Obviously, Montevallo had no answer for UK’s size. Freshman Julius Randle had his “beast-like” performance with 21 points, 11 rebounds and one block. When UK needed a score, he just went inside and got it.
“You see I’m teaching them how to play out on the floor, but when the game is on the line, where is he going? Go get that ball next to that basket and get us something good,” Calipari said of Randle.
Asked how to stop Randle, Brown gave an answer many more likely will. “You can’t. Talented, strong, like his game. No. 1 to me, draft pick,” Brown said.
James Young had 16 points — not counting the unbelievable shot he threw behind his back saving a ball from going out of bounds on the sideline that went into the Montevallo goal — and five rebounds. Aaron Harrison started at his natural two guard position with Jarrod Polson taking over at the point for injured Andrew Harrison, but Aaron Harrison had 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds and no turnovers.
Willie Cauley-Stein came alive the second half and had six blocked shots, four rebounds and 12 points. “I thought Willie came out in the second half and blocked shots, which he didn’t in the first half. As a matter of fact I took him out because a guy drove and he stood on the weak side,” Calipari said.
Plus, Calipari admitted he “beat them up” in practice over the weekend after a so-so effort last Friday against Transylvania that probably tired the team out some for this game.
“I thought we played better than we did last game, and that’s all I’m asking. We’re a ways away now, folks. But I’m learning about them every time they play,” he said.
He also liked the way Montevallo’s older players “balled” and played physical with his young team.
“They weren’t afraid. They banged, they were not backing down,” Calipari said.
Kentucky played the game in spurts, a sign of the team’s immaturity in Cauley-Stein’s mind.
“You can see what we can do in spurts,” the sophomore center said. “But we’ve got to keep it going and take it out on each other like that in practice.”
He said sometimes players have a tendency not to want to make “your brother and teammate” look bad in practice, but that attitude can keep players from taking it to opponents “we don’t like” because they are not doing it daily.
“We are not a great team, but it is not just one player doing things wrong,” Cauley-Stein said. “There are plays I fly around, then plays I get stuck. My job is to block everything. It was not that long from last season where I had to worry about who had my back. This year, I don’t have that. Once we get the part down where we can all totally trust everybody, then that is when we will sky rocket forward.
“We still all think, shoot. I’m just a sophomore and I feel like I’m a senior, but we are still playing like we are in high school where you can take every shot. You can’t do that. You have to play for everybody else.”
That’s a lesson Aaron Harrison is learning.
“It’s just hard running the point and learning to all play together, but we’ll get there,” he said.
Calipari believes that, too.
“We’ve made strides. We’re better. We have five guys in double figures and another have eight and another have nine,” the UK coach said. “But the one thing I’ll tell everybody: We’re still not a good team offensively or defensively yet. When I say team, one guy is breaking down, two guys are breaking down. One guy forgets where to go. One guy holds the ball too long.
“Instead of pass, pass, cut, cut, drive, it’s pass, try to drive. And again, I mean, the most anybody shot were 13 balls, so it’s not like guys are being selfish. It’s just that you’ve got to play more for your team than yourself, and we’re getting closer. This was a good game for us. I’m glad we played this team, and I’m glad they played the way they played.”
And he’ll be even happier when he sees his collection of talent play together enough to start doing team things on both ends of the court that will eventually justify why UK could be No. 1 when the season ends.