Kentucky’s Youth and Inexperience: Does It Matter?Posted by KDoyle on January 25th, 2012
Kevin Doyle is an RTC correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @KLDoyle11. He filed this report from the Kentucky-Georgia game in Athens Tuesday night.
Shortly after the Top 25 poll was released for the week of January 23, Kentucky head coach John Calipari was no doubt a bit uneasy seeing his Wildcats perched atop of the rankings. In Kentucky’s first stint as the #1-ranked team in America back in December, they fell to an upstart Indiana team in what has been, without question, the game of the season to date. The Wildcats led in the final minute, but two late missed free throws allowed the Hoosiers to have one final shot to win it and the rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward a month and a half and 11 games — all UK victories, by the way — and Kentucky found themselves in a similar position. In an article released by The Louisville Courier-Journal recently, Calipari explains how experiencing adversity and knowing what it feels like to lose again may not be the worst thing in the world:
I did tell them the way this is going, we probably need a loss so that we’ll come together and say, ‘We’re not losing like this.’ In other words, getting manhandled. We’re getting manhandled and winning close games, so they think it’s OK. So my thing is, let’s take it on the chin. Now whatcha gonna do? You going to say it’s OK? I don’t think they’re going to say it’s OK.
In last night’s contest at Stegeman Coliseum before a sold-out crowd of Georgia fans (although Big Blue Nation certainly made their presence felt), Kentucky was the team that did, as Calipari would call it, “the manhandling.” It was not the most aesthetically pleasing basketball game to watch as the teams combined for a mere 101 points, but Kentucky powered their way to a comfortable 13-point victory, 57-44. Georgia hung around for much of the first half, but after the under-four media timeout Kentucky exerted their will and coasted. The Bulldogs never got within single digits in the second half.
Looking back at Cal’s remarks, it is easy to side with him and say that a tough loss may be good for team morale as it would ostensibly rally the squad together and force them to refocus. He can say that the target is even bigger on their backs now since they are riding a 12-game winning streak, undefeated in the SEC, one of only three 20+ game winners, and the #1 team in the country. But, let’s be honest, they are the University of Kentucky — Big Blue Nation — the target is always on their back and every time they step on the floor the spotlight is squarely on Cal & Co. Would a loss change Kentucky’s mindset as to how they approach a future game?
Although he would never admit it, one has to wonder if Calipari is at all concerned with the youth and inexperience that comprises the Kentucky roster. Subconsciously, Calipari may believe that his young group could really benefit from an SEC loss. Who knows whether Calipari’s comments are merely “coachspeak,” but they do raise some interesting questions, particularly regarding the focus, mental toughness, and game-to-game preparation of a young group. It would be remiss if the makeup of Kentucky’s existing roster was not scrutinized. It is a fair question that is asked during every NCAA Tournament: “How much Tournament experience does ‘X’ team have?” The answer for Kentucky would be, “not much,” as Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones are the only players who receive significant minutes to have experienced the glorious wonders of the NCAA Tournament.
Lest we forget, however, the so-called youth and inexperience that last year’s National Champion possessed. While still very early and premature to be looking that far ahead, it is interesting exercise to compare the 2011 Connecticut Huskies to the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats. Five of Connecticut’s top six players last year were underclassmen with Kemba Walker being the only upperclassman — a junior that played like a super-senior. Six of Kentucky’s top seven players are either freshmen or sophomores with Darius Miller being the lone senior.
While there are similarities between the two, the glaring difference is that of the fabulous All-American, Walker. Many times last year, the Huskies leaned on him to carry them through tough games. Sure, Jeremy Lamb had his coming-out party in the NCAA Tournament as he helped lead Connecticut to the title as a freshman, but make no mistake about it — that was Walker’s team. Walker averaged 23.5 points per game last season, more than double the points that Lamb averaged who was the second leading scorer. More often than not, regardless of the “experience” argument, that Husky team was going to go as far as Kemba took them, and they went all the way.
In analyzing Kentucky, who is their Kemba Walker? Is it Darius Miller? Terrence Jones? Anthony Davis? Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? The answer is, they don’t have one, nor do they necessarily need one. With six players averaging in double figures — Calipari only goes about seven deep — there is never a need for one player to bail the rest out. If there was one thing we learned from last night’s game against Georgia, other than the fact that Kentucky responded nicely after having been ranked #1 by grinding out a win, it is that a zone defense can effectively limit the touches that Davis and Jones receive inside. The duo, who combine for nearly 25 points per game, were held to just nine points on 3-7 shooting. Not surprisingly, 57 points scored was the first time this season Kentucky has been held below the 60-point mark. Inexperienced or not, every team — regardless of their spot — needs to learn how to win ugly, grind-it-out type games when they are not at their very best. Kentucky took a good step at accomplishing this last night. Playing in a hostile and loud environment, facing a stout 2-3 zone that second-year coach Mark Fox instituted for much of the game, not having standout performances from Davis, Jones, or Marquis Teague on the offensive end — all of these factors contribute to the growing process that will ultimately pay dividends for UK come Tournament time.
Looking back on Calipari’s comments, having the number “two” appear in the loss column is not necessarily what this super-talented yet young Wildcat team needs. The preceding instances are just three of many more obstacles that Kentucky will come across in the final two months of the season. It is not losing that will make them a more polished and better team, but digging deep and uncovering different ways to earn a victory — like they did last night against Georgia and will need to do again in the future — that will transform Kentucky into a championship-caliber team.