LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- There were three big local basketball games Saturday afternoon, and two columnists here at WDRB world command. Rick Bozich took the biggest -- Minnesota's visit to Bloomington to face Indiana in a face-off of Top 10-ranked teams.
I took what I thought looked like the better of the other two. U of L was playing a South Florida team that had played Syracuse to an 11-point game in Tampa and beaten the Cardinals in Freedom Hall last season. UK was playing a Texas A&M team that had lost to Southern, beaten Houston Baptist by only eight points and was rated even lower by the computers (and, most of all in my judgment, by Ken Pomeroy) than USF was.
In other words, I chose what I thought would be the lesser of two blowouts.
Let's just say I was wrong.
But in my own defense, it wasn't the most wrong I was last week. The MOST wrong was when I wrote this last Tuesday night, "It's a little silly that UK isn't ranked right now. I know, the Baylor loss was not a good loss. And they've been sluggish against lesser competition at times. But they're still one of the 25 best teams in the nation."
Reader John Hunt was kind enough to remind me of those words, and even attached a picture of a guy with a fried egg -- sunny side up -- on his face.
There is no sunny side for the Texas A&M victory in Rupp Arena for UK.
Hunt wasn't the only correspondent with a message. Most came with their rhetorical shovels, encouraging me to start throwing dirt on this UK basketball team.
The problem with doing that is that I've seen too many teams left for dead around here come back to do surprising things -- starting with the University of Louisville team that made it to the Final Four last season. And the UK team that made it to the Final Four the season before that.
That team was just as lost during SEC play as this one looked at the end of Saturday's loss -- trailing late by 16 after leading by four with just over six minutes to play. That 2011 team had Darius Miller trying to find himself and in general seemed destined to depart the stage early after nine regular-season losses.
So there's hope for this UK team because there is talent and because, as Rick Pitino told his team all last season, in college basketball, most of your grade is the final exam.
The problem is that this UK team doesn't have some of the things that the 2011 Final Four bunch had; namely, experience, and shut-down defenders.
I watched the UK-Texas A&M game twice. Without question, Elston Turner had the game of a lifetime in his 40-point effort. Watch it again, however, and you'll see that 29 of his 40 points came with a decent amount of daylight between Turner and the nearest defender (even if Turner was nearly to Nicholasville on a couple of shots).
Turner's final three three-pointers were just inspired, decently defended and/or from a depth that most coaches will give most shooters. He made those shots, threw the daggers, and that was the ballgame.
For stretches in the second half, UK's Archie Goodwin defended him well enough. UK just didn't have enough capable perimeter defenders to throw at him for an entire game, and Goodwin couldn't do that job for 40 minutes. DeAndre Liggins might have. Darius Miller could've helped.
But the Wildcats are missing the kind of seasoning and tenacity that those two players had. What they have instead, is talent. But it has to be about more than that, especially in a year with more good teams than college basketball produced back in 2011.
This is a team missing leadership and toughness. The scouting report on Texas A&M begins with one goal -- stop Elston Turner. Contain him. Make him give up the ball. If he has to get the ball, don't let him operate on the right side of the court, push him to the left. Double-team, triangle-and-two, whatever it takes.
That UK lacks such a shutdown guy, and in fact seems to get caught scrambling late in games defensively, as it did at Vanderbilt, is indicative of a young team, and perhaps indicative of a tired team. Yes, it won a national title with a young team a year ago. It also led by 20 late in a lot of games, and had several NBA-level defenders on the perimeter, including Anthony Davis, who could guard out on the court. One wonders what Nerlens Noel might've done on Turner.
Regardless, depth has never cropped up as an issue for UK coach John Calipari in Lexington. Maybe it is now.
The other issue is rebounding. If Nerlens Noel is going to try to block shots, opponents are finding ways to slide into his vacated position for offensive boards, or are beating UK to long rebounds after perimeter misses. The only fix for this is for UK guards to do a better job of rebounding. The Wildcats need more rebounds from Goodwin and Harrow. This is a team that is capable of getting big stops -- but letting teams grab an offensive rebound after 35 seconds of good defense negates all of that.
And, of course, the Wildcats need more of everything from Alex Poythress. Simply put, without him emerging to be the kind of consistent all-around player he aspires to be, this team fizzles in March, if not before.
Taking a bigger-picture view, what happened with the Wildcats on Saturday was one of two things:
1). The shot heard 'round the Wildcat locker room that finally fired up a team with clear talent still looking to find its way and develop what up to now has seemed a John Calipari cliche -- a "will to win."
2). The beginning of a breathtaking slide just one season after it appeared Calipari had established a freshman formula for basketball domination. Or, at the very least, confirmation that this group appears destined to keep meandering as it is now, toward irrelevance.
Still, to suggest that one of those courses or the other already is predetermined is to ignore the entire history of sports.
It would appear at this point that UK has too many defensive deficiencies, to little free throw consistency, and too little leadership to make a sustained run at the end.
UK now is in a critical juncture. It's fortunate to be playing over the next two weeks four games against pretty weak competition. Ken Pomeroy projects right now that UK will finish with a 12-6 conference record and at 21-10 in the regular season. But all of UK's next four games Pomeroy projects as wins.
Calipari now has a two-pronged challenge -- get his team to handle fundamental defensive assignments, and help his team to deal with the onslaught of negativity it is encountering.
I'm not sure which is more difficult.
The problem with a loss like the one to Texas A&M isn't just that it hurts a team's tournament resume or pride. The problem is that it creates more pressure.
In the past, UK seemed to have an abundant supply of players impervious to the pressure and expectations that inevitably hang on Wildcat teams. This one hasn't demonstrated that yet.
After its late rally at U of L, I felt like it had turned a bit of a corner. I was wrong. It has not. So there's no wisdom in predicting which turn this team will take next. There's plenty of time to fix things, and plenty of talent to turn things around. But if it doesn't start making that turn pretty emphatically in the next three weeks, the Big Blue Nation could be bracing for a Big Bubble Nightmare.