LEXINGTON, KY. (WDRB) -- During Wednesday night's Blue-White scrimmage in Rupp Arena, University of Kentucky coach John Calipari did everything he could to engineer a victory for White team -- made up of guys you'd expect to be starters, and augmented by anyone from the Blue team who got a hot hand.
Didn't happen. The Blue team, for whatever a score is worth in a game like this, won 89-88.
Now I'm going to tell you why that's a good thing.
The book on this bunch, if there could be one on a team so new and so packed with freshmen, was that it had an outstanding first five or six, but the drop off after that might be something like what you'd find at Red River Gorge.
Those reports are greatly exaggerated.
Julius Mays, who took advantage of the NCAA's senior transfer rule to come in from Wright State, can play. On the Blue team in the first half, he scored 13 points and made 5 of 8 shots. He was so hot that Calipari moved him to the White team. On that more talented side, he didn't score, but dished out four assists and grabbed three rebounds without a turnover.
Now, here's the most important thing he did in the game. At one point in the second half, Archie Goodwin got a loose ball, and instead of passing to Mays ahead on the break, took it himself and dunked it.
That brought Calipari out of his seat, and still had Calipari hopping after the game.
"That's unacceptable," Calipari said. "And I let him know that. He wasn't real happy, but that's not my deal. Then after the game I said, 'You just took 22 shots, more than anybody on the team. Do you understand -- don't ever pass a teammate up? You're going to get shots.' After the game I said, 'The reason is I'm making people throw it to you when you're ahead. So you better throw it to them when they're ahead. Do you understand?' It's not fun when you're being told in an aggressive way. But we don't have time here -- this isn't for funsies."
But after Calipari yelled at Goodwin in real time, here's what Mays did. The senior came alongside the freshman, put his arm around him and smiled.
"I was just telling him don't worry about it, let him yell at you, say what he has to say," Mays said. "You took it. You scored. I just wanted to let him know that I wasn't mad, I'm on your side, I'm running with you. I just wanted him to smile and stay positive and not let it affect the rest of his game."
On a team this young, that presence is of immense importance. Another player who looked like he could have a contribution to make was Jon Hood. He finished with 17 points and in general made all manner of positive things happen after sitting out all last season with a knee injury.
"That's the best he's played because he did what he could do," Calipari said. "He's not listening to someone telling him how to play. He knows what his game is now. He takes that 7-footer and will run and do things that he can do. He's getting his legs back and happy to be playing."
Happy, to hear Hood talk about it, is an understatement.
"I never stopped smiling," Hood said. "I was just happy to get out there and run up and down and have some success. After the game, (Calipari) said that's the first time you've ever done that since you've been playing for me. And that felt good. So now I know what I have to do, play within myself, make smart plays."
While the attention naturally flows to the fabulous freshmen -- and Goodwin, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein all had some impressive stretches -- it's the guys who fill in the cracks who are just as important to this team's final destination. Guys like Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson, Final Fours and championships don't happen without those guys.
In fact, Calipari compared Mays to Miller.
"He brings what Darius brought us," Calipari said. "He'll make an open shot. He's better with the ball. You'll see him push it really hard, he's really strong. Darius was bigger, but he brings the same kind of stuff. He's a veteran. He's loving this. Every day he's learning, he says it's the greatest experience. He appreciates it. And he's just playing, doing the things he knows he can do. And I'm just trying to get everybody, play to your strengths. Do what you do well."
As for the rest of the team, Calipari wasn't so sold. He said the team has spent only 12 minutes in scrimmaging so far because "they don't know how to play." Cauley-Stein was impressive early, earning a move to the White team for the second half. Freshmen Nerlens Noel took an early spill and hurt his back, but still showed his quickness and shot-blocking ability. The Wildcats should again be a great shot-blocking team. But they're not yet a good defensive team.
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer had 28 points and 9 rebounds, but Calipari didn't like his defense against Hood.
"Kyle's going to have to defend better," Calipari said. "Jon Hood just had his way with Kyle. So now we have to figure out, does Kyle defend the five? And these other guys guard the fours? Is that how we play? I don't know yet. But I will say this, I told Kyle you're going have to do other things than rely on jump shots, because if you're not making shots then I have to sit you down. And now it becomes tough making shots. It's hard to make shots when you have to make shots. Like this is the thing that is keeping me in the game. I told him, you want to do all that other stuff, rebound, staying in front of people. Some of it is I'm going to have to find out how we do this, because we do need his shooting and scoring on the floor."
If there's reason for confidence among UK fans, it's that Calipari has yet to fail to figure it out while at UK. He grabbed the microphone at the end of the game and told the crowd of 12,016, "Can you see how far we have to go? Do you see why I said whoever picked us in the top 5 needed to be drug tested?"
It's a raw team. But there's little doubt, even after a team rigged to win failed to beat a bunch of guys who won't account for big minutes this season, that the raw materials are there.
Still, Calipari seems to be reveling in the rawness. Several times he repeated that his team hasn't even been far enough along to scrimmage.
"You can't. How can you scrimmage if they don't know how to play yet?' he said. "Don't know how to stay in a stance, don't know how to close out, don't know how to rotate. Offensively the spacing and timing is so bad if you let them just play then you're telling them it's okay to play that way, in my opinion, the way I coach. Now whether that's right or not, we'll find out. But I think you've got to stop them, make them play the right way, and then let them play more and more and figure out this is how you do it."
The breakdown went like this. Cauley-Stein was solid, played hard, rebounded, had 14 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks. Goodwin is a straight-up scorer, from inside and out, and finished with 32 points and 9 rebounds, making 2 of 3 three-pointers and 11 of 22 shots overall. Poythress is the highlight-reel guy, at times going to the basket with the kind of aggressiveness that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist showed -- but not all the time (which is what set Kidd-Gilchrist apart). He finished with 25 points, six rebounds. Nerlens Noel had 9 points, 8 rebounds and 7 blocked shots.
A year ago in the Blue-White game, you felt like you were watching the national champions. Terrence Jones had 52. Doron Lamb had 31. The freshmen put on shows. This game didn't have the same feel. This wasn't a slam-dunk national champion on the court. But that comparison shouldn't be made.
"That team, it won a championship, I've got a big old ring that weighs my hand down to prove it," Hood said. "This team, what have we done? We've played this game tonight. That's about it. It's not fair to compare the two. Give us time to get there."
And from watching Wednesday night, it's easy to conclude that this team could get there. It has the next-level talent, size, athleticism and even depth. It just needs chemistry and a ton of work.
"Everybody sees we're not as good as everybody's trying to say we are, and I'm good with that," Calipari said. "We are what we are. It's Oct. 24 and we're playing like it's Oct. 15. We've scrimmaged 12 minutes, we've done this (scrimmage).
". . . Every day, it's a grind. Every day, and you don't back up. This is where we are, this is where we're going. And just keep pointing it out. Keep it real, not playing games. After (the scrimmage), I said, 'You all want me to keep it real, but it's hard when I'm talking about you.' There were some guys that I just said, 'You're going to have to play better. You're going to have to play more aggressive.' . . . But we'll be fine. We lost a whole team. We've got a brand new team. I hope you watch us in a month and say they really got better."
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