By LARRY VAUGHT
CHICAGO — Talk of an undefeated season can end, but Kentucky’s 78-74 loss to Michigan State here Tuesday night could still turn out to be a win for the Wildcats.
Kentucky, ranked No. 1 in most preseason polls, could not have started worse. The Cats fell behind 10-0 and were outplayed, outhustled and outmuscled most of the first half. Michigan State, preseason No. 2, eventually built a 15-point halftime lead and seemed ready to turn the game into an embarrassing loss for John Calipari’s team.
But just when UK seemed on the verge of disarray, the Cats grew up. Sure, Julius Randle led the second-half charge that put UK into position to win if not for missing 16 of 20 3-pointers, making only 20 of 36 foul shots, getting just two transition points and committing 17 turnovers. Michigan State was 5-fo-12 on 3’s, 13-for-17 at the foul line, scored 21 points in transition and had just seven turnovers.
Yet Kentucky didn’t wilt and go away. Randle finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds — he also had eight turnovers — after a horrific start against the older Spartans. In the second half, he became a warrior inside and was unstoppable most of the time.
His play helped UK win the rebounding battle 44-32, but his will to fight was contagious and that’s what will carry this team as the months tick off toward the NCAA Tournament.
Better yet, sophomore Alex Poythress, a forgotten man when the season started, battled his way for 12 rebounds, seven points and three blocks. Many of his best plays came in the first half when Kentucky desperately needed his energy after missing its first four shots and making four turnovers to fall behind 10-0 in just over three minutes.
“I knew we would start that way. I told my staff I hoped it was not 15-0 but I bet it gets to 12,” said UK coach John Calipari.
He knew the Champions Classic atmosphere in the United Center might overwhelm his team early — and it did. He said players get “into themselves and everybody is trying to do their thing and gets discombobulated. That’s what I expected. I told them at halftime was it was amazing. We should have been down 20-22 (points).”
Instead, UK used 15 first-half points from James Young to stay within 44-32.
Calipari challenged Randle, and other players, at halftime. He told Randle to quit holding the ball when he went inside and the Spartans sagged on him.
“We just said at this point, the only time they are stopping us is when you hold the ball, so quit holding the ball. Take it to the lane, ball fake and if we miss, we will send everybody to the glass,” Calipari said. “Our offense was throw it up and go rebound. He (Randle) is a fighter.”
But he wasn’t alone. A variety of other players showed Calipari that they would not let adversity befuddle them. Calipari can improve the defense. He an organize the offense. He can plead with and push players to shoot foul shots to get better. And he’ll definitely show them that “jogging” back in transition defense won’t work.
However, he can’t teach heart and it seemed this team had it on the court the second half — and what Calipari saw after the game.
“We had guys crying in there (in the locker room),” Calipari said. “That’s a good thing.”
It reminded him of what team leader Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did two years ago after UK lost at Indiana.
“I want it to hurt like th at. I knew this would get their attention,” Calipari said. “If we do not do this together, we cannot win and be a special team.”
Calipari noted that two years ago against North Carolina, Anthony Davis found a way to block a potential game-winning shot against North Carolina. Late in this game, UK gave up an open 3-pointer and then a rally-killing follow basket to put the game out of reach.
“Those are effort things,” Calipari said. “They (Michigan State) had been in those moments. My team has not.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Calipari does an “incredible job” with his team and he knew the Cats would come back — and will get better.
“We didn’t play great. It wasn’t like we made every jump shot. I think it was two good teams playing. They will get better, but we will, too,” Izzo said. “I give them all the credit in the world. John is a hell of a coach. I couldn’t do it the way he does. But they will get better. They have some growing to do, too.
“Randle doesn’t have to get better. He’s good. But they got other guys that have to get better and they will.”
Based on the way UK played the second half, the Cats will improve. Calipari just wants to make sure everyone notices it won’t happen easily.
“We don’t have enough pride in our defense right now, but that’s natural,” Calipari said. “Our team will be fine. I have four months … well 3 1/2 months now … to get that right.”