We got exactly what we expected tonight from the young Kentucky Wildcats -- some good, some bad, some ugly, and some ridiculous. All in all, it was the kind of game that coach John Calipari no doubt expected, and exactly the kind of game this young basketball team needed.
A hearty thank you to coaching legend Rollie Massimino for bringing his outstanding Seahawks team to Kentucky, to the site where he won his national title at the head of the Villanova Wildcats back in 1985, and thank you to his fine team. This Northwood group was very good, and was all the challenge UK needed at this point in the season. They acquitted themselves well, as they have in every game so far this season. They aren't picked at the top of the NAIA II polls for nothing.
It's tempting to think back seven months hence and remember the incredible wave that was the 2011-12 Wildcats, cresting in New Orleans in a complete and resounding NCAA Tournament title. But that was a far different team, a far different season, and what we have before us is the chrysalis of a new butterfly cracking open. As with all metamorphoses, the new form is a little ugly and incomplete, but you can see the beauty hidden here, there. Whether it will wind up more breathtaking than all the others is impossible to determine at this point. All organic beauty starts out as something notably less than it's ultimate form.
So let's get to the observations of this exhibition game:
- Archie Goodwin is the real deal. In fact, he's more than real, he's an in-your-face, up-your-butt, stone-cold badass. That display in the Blue-White game was no fluke, and he reprised it tonight with a 22 point, 3 block, 5 assist, 4 rebound effort that is one of the better games I have seen out of a freshman at this point in the season. No, he wasn't perfect, he had a team-leading 5 turnovers and made many mistakes. Still, not bad for a guy just out of high school. Game ball.
- Nerlens Noel was very good at times, and somewhat disappointing at times. He did what you expected, but he took a lot of plays off, and failed to hustle more times than I am completely comfortable with. His stat line kind of hides his effort, which was about a C+ at best. His vast talent carried him to 17 points on 8-9 shooting with 4 blocks. If you see echoes of Anthony Davis in that, you should, but Noel is a manifestly different player -- superior in some ways, very much inferior in others.
- Alex Poythress had the kind of game that will have many in the Big Blue Nation wondering what all the fuss was about. He made more mistakes per minute on both sides of the ball than anyone else this game. His stat line is solid, but if you saw what I saw, you know that this is a guy who can play a lot better than this.
- Kyle Wiltjer was fine, but he has got to figure out position defense. Calipari will be forced to take him out of a lot of games if he can't defend any better than he did tonight. True, he was against a smaller man and Wiltjer is anything but abrupt in his movements, but he was out of position too much for my comfort. His shooting stroke is still nearly perfect, though, with 2-3 from the arc. He was a bit too careful with his shot selection for my taste. A guy like him should take every open shot.
- What I loved about Ryan Harrow was how well he finished at the rim. What I did not love was how weak he was when challenged with the basketball. If he is going to be a point guard in the NBA, or even at Kentucky, he has got to develop a take-no-prisoners attitude. Jarrod Polson was much stronger and more confident with the ball than Harrow, and Polson can't hold Harrow's jock in talent. Harrow can handle, he can shoot, and he can finish. He needs to learn how to impose his will on an opponent.
- Willie Cauley-Stein is perhaps John Calipari's greatest diamond in the rough, ever. This kid not only has skill, he has a feel for the game that many players leave college for the NBA never having found. He can put the ball on the floor, he can rebound, and he runs the floor like a deer. He is only going to get better. I love how he kept his feet when Noel went for the fake. Watch this kid, he's a keeper.
- Julius Mays is exactly what we though he was -- an older, experienced player with just enough talent to make him dangerous. He shoots the ball well, he can handle and pass a little, and he knows better than to take plays off. He's a component this team badly needs. But he still showed some rough edges that need smoothing, and he isn't going to be able to guard top talent for long stretches. He does know what his strengths and weaknesses are, though, and that is a powerful thing.
Overall, I am very happy with what I saw, and this is going to be an intriguing season. As I sit here enjoying my traditional post-game Four Roses Single Barrel (neat, no water may ever touch such a fine bourbon), I think this may well be the most rewarding season we have had since Calipairi came. I know most of you don't think this team is up to the task of bringing home NCAA Tournament title #9, but I see the potential and I have a lot of trust in the guy who leads them.
Do not shortchange this bunch. They may not have the same kind of talent that last year's team had, but they have more than enough to get the same job done, and in some ways, if everything falls into place, there is a potential here to be even more dominant.
You may laugh at that. You may shake your head. And you may be right -- but not yet. Not yet.