NEW ORLEANS — First, let me say I didn’t see this coming, specifically. Not seventh-ranked Kentucky losing to unranked and previously unremarkable UCLA on a neutral court Saturday at the CBS Sports Classic.
So in that way, yes, this was a surprise: Bruins 83, Wildcats 75. But in the broader sense, no, John Calipari’s youngest team yet stumbling in December is not especially shocking.
Kentucky had started 9-1 — its lone blemish a narrow defeat to Kansas — and just a week ago recorded its best win of the season in a shootout with high-octane Virginia Tech. The Cats were trending in the right direction, so fans — and maybe players — seemed to forget that this was always going to be a grind.
But I tried to warn you two months ago, writing, “Allow me to offer Big Blue Nation a friendly piece of advice: Temper your early expectations for this team, because it’ll likely be a bumpy ride.” Calipari tried to warn you two months ago, too, saying on Kentucky Sports Radio, “This will be, more than any year I’ve coached here, a process.”
So, what, a narrow home victory against the Hokies, who lost to 7-6 Saint Louis, reset expectations for this Kentucky team, which starts five freshmen and has no juniors or seniors? Or was it the Wildcats’ second-best win of the season, Vermont, which has lost four of its last six?
If so, Saturday served up a startling return to reality: This team, long and tall and talented as it is, will take some lumps. And the payoff might not come until March, if at all.
“Sometimes, as much as you hate to say it, you gotta get knocked in the mouth and lose and it’s got to hurt every player and then they start figuring out, ‘OK, not going to be able to play the way I want to play,’ ” Calipari said after the loss. “We had a great shootaround [Saturday], but it shows you: You just don’t know. They’re young. Who knows what they’re thinking? ‘Oh, we made it. We’re a top-10 team.’ What? ‘We’re good, I’m going to get mine. Watch me [Saturday] on CBS.’
“You don’t know what a 17- or 18-year-old is thinking. I have no idea. Obviously, we need guys with more of a mentality of a will to win and blocking out everything else.”
To that last point, at least give Kentucky credit for this on Saturday: When UCLA came out on fire and repeatedly tried to run away, the Wildcats kept scratching their way back into it.
After falling behind early, Kentucky reeled off 13 unanswered points to seemingly seize control. The Cats led by 8 with 2:59 to go in the first half — but in a blink, it was tied by halftime.
UCLA roared in front again with a 21-2 run, including 16 straight points, spanning the end of the first and start of the second half. The Bruins led by 11 — but Kentucky clapped back with a 13-2 run, getting 8 points in a flurry from freshman star Kevin Knox, to tie the score.
When UCLA answered again with 10 straight points and led by a dozen with 7:33 to go, the Wildcats had one more run in them, a 10-2 burst to get within 4 late. They could have cut it to 2, but Knox sailed an outlet pass over Hamidou Diallo’s head and out of bounds.
Later, Knox rimmed out a 3-pointer to get within a single point with 1:25 remaining.
“As a coach, all I’m thinking about in a game like this is, ‘How do I keep this thing close, see if we have a will to win if we got it close?’ And we did [get it close], and we didn’t have it,” Calipari said. “That’s what I’m disappointed in, that we had a chance to grab the game — they were kind of teetering — and we didn’t.”
He also should be disappointed in Kentucky’s perimeter defense, which allowed 10-plus made 3-pointers for the sixth time in 11 games. UCLA sank a dozen from deep, 5 more than its average.
Bruins coach Steve Alford said afterward that his team’s plan was to negate the Cats’ length and shot-blocking prowess by driving and kicking the ball back out. More often than not, that resulted in wide-open looks Saturday.
BREAKING NEWS: Young teams usually stink on defense. Calipari, who should know that better than anyone, might have hit the panic button too soon and outsmarted himself against UCLA.
“I’m trying to out-trick another coach who can coach, so I’m going zone and I’m switching this — and you know my teams have never done that,” he admitted afterward. “We’re better than this and let’s [chalk] it up to two things: I tried a different type of pick-and-roll defense, which [sarcasm font] obviously was really good [Saturday]. And the other thing is, maybe, it was Christmas.”
Players were flying home to their families all over the country immediately after the game and maybe that was a distraction for homesick freshmen. But it certainly is not a valid excuse.
And here comes the bad news: An unforgiving stretch of games awaits. The Cats host rival Louisville on Friday, open SEC play against a good Georgia team on Sunday, then get back-to-back league road games at LSU and 21st-ranked Tennessee before returning to Rupp Arena to face eighth-ranked Texas A&M.
So if the UCLA loss surprised you, don’t be caught off guard when the Wildcats lose a couple (few?) more soon. That isn’t to say this team can’t turn into a title contender over the next two months — Calipari’s teams do that more often than not — but we all got a reminder Saturday of just how messy this particular process might be.
“They’re getting better. They’re so much better than they were a month ago. We played a team that wanted the game worse than we wanted it,” Calipari said. “Hopefully we bounce back from this, but I told them the next [five] games we play, we can lose every one. You don’t play with the will to win, you don’t come up with balls — and even if you do, you could still get beat by the teams we gotta play coming up.”
You’ve been warned. Again.