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Michigan State loss could eventually turn out to be a win for young Cats

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) reaches for a rebound against Kentucky forward Alex Poythress during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) reaches for a rebound against Kentucky forward Alex Poythress during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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.”

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16 comments

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  1. King Ghidora

    Randle doesn’t have to get better. But he will. He’s just beginning to learn what works for him in college. Once he does it will be an avalanche of points for him. No one in this country can stop him. I’m watching Wiggins play against Parker. Neither one is anything like Randle. Not even close the best I can tell. But it’s early. Things could change. Still I figure Randle to be POY this year.

    The Cats will learn from this game and be back. They are still so very young and there is much for them to learn. But they will. They have already learned a lot.

  2. LindaS

    I was cool, calm and collected all day. Did not do any good to worry about the game. I sat down to watch it and then I got worried. Other then a few players, we basically have a high school team starting and it sure looked like it the first half. Wow, was I stunned. Not sure stunned is the right word but no other word is going to do here.
    Missed free throws, missed baskets, to’s, Randle playing like he was in kindergraten, it did not look like the number one recruiting class in the nation until you realized 4 of the 5 of the floor were freshman. No matter the hype, no matter what we saw in 2 games previously and 2 exhibition games, this was the Big Time. This is what it is suppose to be like in Texas at the Big Dance. Not now when they don’t have their eyes wide open yet, not yet when they are still feeling their way. Experience vs talent…
    And then the second half started, up and down, close and yet not close enough but they showed the fire and what we can expect in the future. This team is going to be good, very very good. Gonna have to find some more superlatives to describe this game.
    I don’t know if Izzo was trying to be funny or not but he called Randle “ornery and nasty”. I think Randle is, other then the first half, skilled and a weapon of mass destruction on the court.
    Then there was Digger and I don’t know what kept Randle from hitting him but outside the UK locker room Digger Phelps stops Randle and screams “hey Strickland, u gonna teach these guys free throws.” I don’t think Randle was happy about that.
    I think there was 46 fouls called and the game lasted 2.5 hours. Before long it is going to last as long as football games. Gonna put a lot more money in the NCAA’s pockets with all that money from commercials. I think it is a little ridiculous.
    There were too many nerves and jitters in the first half. They are not a true team yet but just wait, one month there will be a difference, then in two months watch out. I don’t expect to see another half like the first one this year. SEC you might as well get Kentucky engraved on the trophy and NC2A, just go ahead and ship the big one to Lexington now. Go Cats!

  3. Phillip Barker

    We’ll be just fine when everyone gets on the same page…hey, the second half comeback was all you could asked for-as Self said, “we just ran out of time”. The twins will grow a lot as a result of this experience. Poy’s seen the light and is starting to get nasty, Gotta love James Young. Willie, when you are standing straight up, your head is not in the game. Shout out to Dakari…saw you yelling and communicating with your teammates…keep it up. Would loved to have seen more of Lee, but I trust Coach Cal and his knowledge of what needs to be done at this time. Mr. Randle, you are the “go to guy” and you certainly didn’t let us down-you took no prisoners! To all who will listen, you’re not going to be playing in any tight games if you can’t shoot free throws. BBN admires your “fight” and will pull you through-Go Cats!

  4. RJ

    What’s really amazing is these are mostly freshmen. Back in the day, a freshman wasn’t even allowed in the varsity locker room much less be counted on to win the national championship. Lot of talent on the floor last night. Lets see fast they can come together as a team.

  5. King Ghidora

    We shouldn’t expect anymore than that from Digger. He’s still in the throes of UK envy from the 1970′s. Here he thought he was going to be the big cheese in college ball after Wooden retired but then he ran into a team call the Wildcats. Poor Digger was 4-12 against the Cats and three of his wins came during Joe B.’s bad year in 1973, the disaster year of 1988 (when good players just didn’t care to play hard) and the post-sanction year of 1990 when the Cats were playing with the guys at the end of the bench and they hadn’t been trained by Pitino yet. So Digger really had one quality wins against the Cats in 16 tries. He had to hate UK. UK stole every bit of glory he had for himself because of winning that one game against UCLA. It wasn’t Digger’s doings that won that game anyway. Walton injured his back in the game prior to that ND win (he wore a back brace for the game severely limiting his mobility) and two weeks later when Walton was better they thrashed ND big time.

    Phelps has hated UK with a passion since he figured out his ND team was never going to come close to what UK did on a regular basis. UK took his lunch money and sent him home hungry and he still fumes about it.

  6. Jim

    I liked the game, even though the Cats lost. Bad night at the free throw line cost them dearly. Sloppy guard play was also a big factor. They will be fine at the end of the season.

  7. TheProfessor

    I do not know how a better script could have been written for a game, win or lose, as this one played out for this young team. They experienced stage fright at the beginning, and Michigan State showed them how this game must be played at the highest levels in the first half. Calipari is right that the team was fortunate that Young and Poythress managed to keep their team within 12 points at halftime. The second half, the team grew up substantially, a growth that will stick with this group, and be a motivator to redouble their effort and their focus.

    The most disappointing aspect of what happened last night was the free throw shooting. The high number of turnovers will get fixed. The turnovers gave Michigan State a large number of easy points off turnovers. The 4-20 three point shooting happens. It happens to all teams a few times each season, but it does not happen every game, and some games, this team will also erupt to make 10 or 12 of those same 20 attempts. Overall, I do not see this team as a great (35% or higher) 3 point shooting team, but it will probably hover around the low 30 percent range.

    The part of this team’s game that concerns me is free throw shooting. The line provides every team the best opportunity to increase its offensive efficiency. A team that shoots 70% from the line, earns 1.4 points per possession for those specific possessions. However, 50% shooting is 1 point per possession, which is under all standards for champions for the easiest way to score in the game. Calipari teams have historically struggled, and paid the price for those struggles, from the line. I do not get it. I don’t know if he gets it. I am certain that these players don’t get it.

    However, there is no excuse for either coach or players to fail to understand the basic facts about this game such as the importance of free throws. This team, unlike any previous Calipari coached UK team, will get to the line a lot in every game. They must honor those opportunities, and make a reasonable percentage. This must become a matter of personal pride for each player, and the coaches must make it a point of emphasis.

    With free throw efficiency, this team will not lose again. With the efficiency we have seen so far from the line this year, this team will lose many more times.

    1. RJ

      You’re absolutely right. What is worse is if the FT percentage does not markedly improve, opposing teams will be motivated to be even more physical with the Cats. A high FT percentage keeps the other teams honest.

  8. King Ghidora

    You’re spot on with your analysis Professor. I would just add that sometimes great players are not great FT shooters. The same kind of hands it takes to pull down rebounds in a crowd are often not the same soft hands it takes to have that FT shooting touch. The one place that can’t happen is with the guards though. They simply have to make a good percentage of their FT’s or the team will not do well. Guards don’t have the big hands that make FT shooting hard for bigger people. If anyone wants an idea how much harder it is for a big man to shoot FT’s get yourself a volleyball and try shooting with it. You will quickly see (most people do anyway) that there is a substantial loss of fine control over the ball because of the way it sits in your hand. Of course this isn’t a rule set in stone. Some big men are great from the charity stripe. But many otherwise great players can’t shoot those freebies worth a hoot. Shaq and Wilt are the two obvious examples but it goes beyond those guys.

    Practice will usually help some but it really takes learning to shoot an entirely new way to have a huge impact on percentages. Players are generally taught to shoot with a ball marked with the correct hand position for shooting. They match their hands with the marks on the ball and learn to shoot that way at an early age. But for some people that method becomes their downfall because their hands are much bigger than the hands on those balls. They have to learn to shoot with their fingers more. The truly great shooters do that naturally or they learn it at some point. Usually they can shoot with their hands flat on the ball or with the ball on their finger tips depending on the type of shot they are taking. A FT is the place where you shoot with your fingertips if you want to do well. The Mark Price’s and the Kyle Macy’s of the world shoot that way. Pretty much every >90% FT shooter I’ve seen shoots that way. But of course these rules are not universal. Neither is learning with a ball with hands painted on it for the proper position for shooting.

    I do know that I had trouble shooting early in high school. I finally decided I was going to spend how ever long it took to learn to shoot well. I came across the method of putting the ball up on the fingertips more and I thought about the fine motor control it takes to write and I tried to transfer that to controlling a basketball. My shooting percentage took an instant jump in the right direction. I actually modeled that effort from what I had seen from the great set shot shooters and the way they shot. In particular my high school coach shot that way and I don’t think I saw him miss more than a dozen shots out of hundreds that he put up from 25 feet or more. He could really shoot. And I noticed that many of the great jump shot shooters really used the same hand control. The hand position is still the same but the ball is just kept a little more on the fingertips instead of on the palm.

    It’s tough to re-learn shooting at the age these kids are at. That’s why we don’t see huge improvements in shooting very often. Bigger guys just have too much hand on the ball to control it well. It’s really that simple. And UK has a lot of big men. Only Randle has shown me the true shooters touch among the big men. I’d like to see those guys learn to shoot in the off season because it takes a lot of time to master a completely new style. And of course we need them to shoot well now. I’m just afraid we won’t see a whole lot of improvement except maybe among the guards. That will be good enough if they can do it. But I’ve seen big guards have trouble with too much hand on the ball too. And UK certainly has big guards.

    BTW you can see a big guy shooting the ball with his fingertips on this page:

    http://www.bigbluehistory.net/bb/Graphics/Programs/20111123Radford.jpg

  9. Kokamo Joe

    What we have now is a glorified high school AAU team. The parts are terrific but the machine is not running on all cylinders yet. It will.

    Our schedule sits us up for player development and success. Following this loss are five cup cakes who must face the crowd, the excitement and the home cooking that is Rupp. Then we go to Baylor for another test. Then it is cup cake North Carolina away for another test and then it is cup cake and UL at home. By then the machine will be clicking. UL may have great guards, but they won’t be able to handle Randle. From there the Cats slide into the SEC where only Florida and Tennessee have a remote chance of beating them.

    Looks like a number one seed to me.

  10. LindaS

    I kept telling people last night this was basically a high school team. I never saw so a ball jumping out of Kentucky’s hands as it did last night. I was shocked. It was there and then it was gone. At one point I thought they needed some velcro on their hands.

  11. Ray

    We lost 78-78? Man I knew those refs had it in for us.

  12. Anonymous

    Terrible game – Missed free throws, Turn-overs, no hustle back on defense, not enough passing…………. you could go on & on. Don’t pass the ball – Just throw up a three & hope it goes in? Why do prima-donna’s think they do not have to hit free throws or hustle back & play defense? Just like last year, this team is just a bunch of individuals & not a TEAM! Don’t expect much this year!

    1. LindaS

      Anonymous, you are kidding right? Go troll you own teams pages and leave us alone.

  13. King Ghidora

    I don’t think anyone can handle Randle Joe. Jabari Parker looked pretty good last night but I don’t think he has the muscle to stop Randle and I think Randle can come very close to matching his speed. Wiggins doesn’t even play the same position usually. Yes Wiggins did guard Parker for a while but it was the Kansas team that made the difference in that game. I never felt like Wiggins could take over the game like Parker did and neither seemed like the could compete with Randle. Randle is like Cousins with the wheels of Wall. He’s a force of nature IMO. Just think how he would have looked if he didn’t come out looking like a deer caught in the headlights. He had an excuse though. It was his first big test. He passed with flying colors once he got rolling.

    1. Kokamo Joe

      Randle had a tough first half. Michigan State big men had something to do with that. In the second half the MS big men had foul problems. Could have Randle rebounded and scored as well if they had played more?

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