Young teams. One never knows the psychological strength of a team, especially a young team, until they have been tested, and sometimes beaten. Although this UK team is full of high school All-Americas, indicating it should be a team full of confident young men, the accumulation of talent John Calipari has put together had not lost at the collegiate level until the thorough, Maui-style dismantling courtesy of Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies.
And by using the word "dismantling," I'm being kind, because UK was beaten every which way but loose by the Huskies. Which is an experience most of UK's current crop of freshman consider a foreign concept. Add in the fact that at this point, the players are in search of leadership within their ranks, and the very real possibility of a precipitous drop in confidence and performance could have effected the way the team prepared for, and played against the Boston U Terriers.
Furthermore, with Calipari complaining loudly about what he perceives as selfish play of the team in Hawaii, fans were left to wonder if the youthful 'Cats would respond to -- a) a bad loss, and b) their coach rightfully berating them for their selfishness and lack of interior defense -- with a solid performance against a team they should soundly beat.
What we learned Tuesday night is that these 'Cats, like last year's team, is capable of the big-time bounce back. It's not that they beat BU that was so impressive (on the contrary, it was expected), it's how they beat BU -- 59.3% field goal shooting (32-54); 62.5% long-range shooting (10-16); 21 assists on 32 made baskets (an assist on 67% of made baskets); and a 30-14 advantage in points in the paint. Defensively, the 'Cats held the Terriers to only 28.5% from the field, and eight assists. Compare those numbers to the UConn game -- 36.7% field goal shooting (22-60); 8-22 three-point shooting (36.4%); nine assists on 22 made baskets (an assist on 45% of made baskets); and a 42-24 points in the paint annihilation. Against UConn, defending was obviously optional; the Huskies shot 57.7% from the floor (30-52), and 58.3% from beyond the arc (7-12), and lived in the lane all night ... shooting layups.
Brandon Knight, who struggled (and looked noticeably uncomfortable) with turnovers and running the offense in Maui, bounced back in a major way against Boston U, scoring 23 points on 8-12 shooting (4-6 3's), grabbing six rebounds, dishing out six assists, and committing four turnovers in 34 minutes of play. Knight, like John Wall and Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose before him, is learning the dribble-drive as he goes, so naturally there will be peaks and valleys along the way (both Rose and Evans struggled early in their freshman seasons). But, it was nice (and confidence-building) to see the Fort Lauderdale freshman respond to such an incredibly sub-par game, with his best effort yet as a 'Cat.
Now, we should all realize BU is not UConn, but, Tuesday night all but the most cynical Kentucky fans clearly saw a team more cohesive, more in-tune to each other's place on the floor, and actually interested in playing some sort of interior defense. And UK's big men (not named Terrence), in addition to their improved defense, responded with perhaps their most complete offensive game of the year: In 40 combined minutes, Josh Harrellson and Eloy Vargas scored 16 points, on 6-9 field goals, corralled 15 rebounds (six offensive), and committed only one turnover.
All positive signs. But, not as positive as this loudly blinking neon sign: Over the last two games, as a team, UK is shooting 72.7% from the free throw line (32-44). A considerable improvement over the less-than-sixty-percent-from-the-charity-stripe they were averaging entering the UConn game.
So, with all signs pointing in a positive direction, let's take a quick look at the block of three games awaiting the 'Cats over the next two weeks.
North Carolina Tar Heels: At Chapel Hill, Saturday @ 12:30 EST on CBS -- Roy Williams' Tar Heels have struggled so far this year. With a 4-3 record, and losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt, and #21 Illinois (an ugly, ugly defeat), UNC is searching for an identity. The No. 1 high school player in the nation last year, 6-8 forward Harrison Barnes, has performed, well, like a freshman. He's averaging a respectable 11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per game, but his shooting (he's shooting 33.8% from the field) and ball handling have been in a word, streaky. Tyler Zeller (7-0 forward/center), UNC's big man in the middle, has played solidly, leading the team in scoring at 14.7 points per game, to go along with 7.3 rebounds per contest. Zeller possesses and array of moves around the basket, and will be a tough man to handle for UK's Harrellson and Vargas. Six-ten forward John Henson is averaging 11.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game.
Henson and Zeller will be the first two opposing players of their size to legitimately challenge UK's trio of bigs (note to Harrellson and Vargas -- The UNC game will be an opportune time to make everyone forget the UConn fiasco). And that battle might very well determine the winner of this "Clash of the Titans."
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: At Freedom Hall, December 8 @ 9:30 EST on ESPN-- The Irish, sittin' fat and happy at 8-0, own wins over Georgia, Cal, and Wisconsin. Led by 6-3 guard (and brother of Tyler) Ben Hansbrough (15.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists per game), Mike Brey's team so far has bounced back in their own right, playing for the first time in four years without All-America Luke Harangody, who took his 21.3 points and 9.1 rebounds to the NBA.
Helping out Hansbrough is 6-8 forward Tim Abromaitis, who's averaging 15.6 points and 6.9 rebounds per game -- The big man can also serve it up; Abromaitis is averaging 2.9 assists per contest. The other Irish forward is 6-8 Tyrone Nash. Nash, hotly recruited out of high school, is averaging 12.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game -- That's 6.1 assists per game Brey is getting out of his two starting forwards.
This game is looking tougher now, than when the schedule was first released. But, Freedom Hall has historically been very good to the 'Cats.
Indiana Hoosiers: At Rupp Arena, December 11th @ 5:15 EST on ESPN -- Tom Crean's third year in Bloomington is (at least) starting out much better than his first two efforts. Being saddled with a lack of scholarship players his first year, and last season losing point Maurice Creek before the start of Big 10 play, hamstrung the former Marquette head man's ability to re-establish the Hoosiers as one of the nations elite squads. But a quick 6-1 start to the 2010-2011 season has hoop's hopes and expectations on the rise at IU.
Led by superb sophomore, 6-9 forward Christian Watford (17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds per game), the Hoosiers are finally showing signs of life. Also playing well during the early going is 6-5 guard Verdell Jones (a junior, which makes him the old man of the group), who is putting up 14.2 points per game. And last year's casualty of war, Maurice Creek, has rebounded from his season-ending injury to average 11.3 points per contest this season. Another sophomore, Jordan Hulls, is playing exceptionally well at the present, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 assists per game.
Although the Hoosiers have yet to beat anybody of note (with the possible exception of Evansville, who earlier in the year bested Butler), they are winning by an (impressive) average margin of 21.8 points -- IU's lone loss of the year was to Boston College.
Even though the Hoosiers seem to be much better than last year, UK should have their way with them, especially with the game being played in what will be a comfortably hostile Rupp Arena.
Kentucky's next three games are one of the reasons it's great to be a UK fan. Great rivalries, great coaches, great players. A large time should be had by all ... well, by the good guys at least.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!