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Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: 'Cats don't compete, lack floor leadership in loss to Irish

Notre Dame's Jack Cooley schooled the 'Cats in the Irish's Thursday night win.
Notre Dame's Jack Cooley schooled the 'Cats in the Irish's Thursday night win.
Joe Robbins

To read Glenn's postmortem of UK's loss to Notre Dame click here.

Most Kentucky Wildcat (4-2) basketball fans knew before the start of the season that a lack of floor leadership might present early-season roadblocks as this painfully young collection of talent fought through growing pains on the way to excellence. With only Kyle Wiltjer, who averaged 11.6 minutes per game last season, the lone returning Wildcat with more than microscopic experience wearing a UK uni, the quest for in-game player leadership (read: someone to figuratively kick the behinds of lolly gaggers) seemed to be on the short of John Calipari's "To Do" list.

Through six games, the quest continues.

"What disappointed me: we didn't compete," Calipari said after UK's lackluster 64-50 loss at pumped up Notre Dame (7-1). "They beat us to balls. They beat us around the basket. We just didn't compete."

"Didn't compete." Now those are two unpleasant words, that when strung together, speak volumes about not only the youth of the 2012-2013 Wildcats, but also the lack of leadership among Cal's Kiddie 'Cat Corps.

And it wasn't only Calipari who bemoaned his team's lack of fire.

"Just got out-competed from start to finish," Julius Mays, UK's elder statesmen, said after the contest. "We didn't play hard. I didn't feel like we played hard. They competed harder than we did, and the came out and wanted it more than we did."

Mays, a grad student transfer from Wright State, is by a wide margin the most experienced Wildcat. And after the game, Mays saw the contest for what it was.

"My whole thing is, though, you can play poorly but you still defend and compete," Mays lamented. "In other words, two teams just battling each other and Notre Dame wins ... that's not what this was. This was Notre Dame throwing around Kentucky and winning by as many as they needed to win by. That's what the game was."

Mays, who finished with a team-high 16 points on 5-of-10 shooting (4-7 from distance), looks to have a bright future as an analyst, because he absolutely sums up the contest with his honest evaluation of the evening's events.

Perhaps partially mitigating Kentucky's wayward performance -- UK's 50 points represents its lowest point total in the Calipari era -- is the fact that Kentucky's trip to South Bend was the Wildcats' initial road test of the season. And with the Irish crowd amped-up by the presence of a national television audience, a circumstance exasperated by facing a UK program that has owned Touchdown Jesus over the years (the 'Cats, coming into the game, were 11-1 vs. the Irish since 1990), UK, more than at any time this young season, needed someone, anyone, to take charge, kicking those Wildcat fanny's who's motivation seemed lacking.

"I thought at least against Duke we competed, we battled and we fought like crazy," Calipari said. "In this game, we just didn't. But like I said, the environment might've hit 'em in the head.

"Now, you've got to give Notre Dame credit," Calipari continued. "What a great crowd, the student body. And then the way they played. They ground us out. That's how we usually play when we get up."

Road contests are pure poison to some teams, especially young teams. For further proof, check UK's 2-6 SEC road record in 2011, a team, possibly not unlike this year's squad, who took the bulk of the season to "find themselves" on its way to the Final Four.

"Well, we better get used to it," Mays said about Kentucky playing on the road. "It's going to be a night in, night out basis (where) crowds are going to be like this everywhere we go."

More than at any other time, playing as a unit, playing as a team, is most important on the road. When facing road adversity, instead of bringing out the one-on-one abilities of each player, should create an atmosphere of sharing among a squad so richly talented.

But that is not what happened in South Bend in the last week of November, instead, the 'Cats looked to create on their own, and defend only intermittently (particularly on the perimeter), as the Irish shredded the nets by making 8-of-15 from beyond the arc (53.3 percent), and 24-of-50 shots overall (48.0 percent).

"But we didn't execute, we didn't play together," Calipari noted after the game. "There were a lot of things that went out the window. We had the typical stuff. Guys stopping on defense. Play (defense) for 25 seconds, then foul. Play (defense) for 25 seconds then lose a man. Play (defense) for 25 seconds, and two guys cross ... and they don't (talk to each other) and the guy shoots a three."

Because of UK's lack of offensive flow, the 'Cats countered Notre Dame's hot shooting by making only 4-of-14 from 3-point land and 19-of-47 overall (40.4 percent). Worse even; take away Mays' four made treys, and the remaining Wildcats were 0-of-7 from long-range; take away Mays' five made shots, and the rest of the Kentucky squad made only 14-of-37 overall shots, good for 37.9 percent.

"We weren't looking for each other," Calipari stated. "Whoever had it (the ball) was trying to score it, and you can't really play that way."

The scheduling gods, though, have been good to the 'Cats. As any athlete will say, it is always good to get the unpleasant taste of a loss out of one's system quickly. With Kentucky suiting up Saturday for a game with the Baylor Bears, working-out the kinks of youth resumes without much pause.

"The good news is, we play in 36 hours," Calipari said. "You (can't) sulk over this one. We got a game. We didn't play well. They played extremely well. They made shots. We didn't defend them the way we have to defend."

The 'Cats quest for consistent effort, especially on the defensive end of the floor, as well as on-the-floor leadership, takes up residence in Rupp Arena Saturday afternoon. The ride, Big Blue Nation, has only just begun.

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett