CRAWFORD | UK scrimmage: Blue, White and talented all over
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It's quite possible that the University of Kentucky's 2013-14 edition could be the deepest, most talented college basketball team since UK's 1996 edition cut down the NCAA Tournament nets.
We won't learn that from a Blue-White scrimmage. The real anticipation of this team comes when it all collects on the same sideline, as it will do Friday night against Transylvania. UK coach John Calipari will hold a banquet for Transylvania before the game. Then his team will have the Pioneers for dinner. Or maybe just a snack.
What the Wildcats did show Tuesday night in a 99-71 Blue victory before a Rupp Arena crowd of 15,035 was that reports of Calipari's incoming talent have not been greatly exaggerated.
[Click here for the box score]
Julius Randle? He can play. He can shake a defender with a crossover and finish with a left-handed slam. He's 6-9. And 250 pounds. There are plenty of guys his size who can do those kinds of things. Unfortunately for UK opponents, they all play in the NBA. He finished with 21 points on 8 of 13 shooting, and grabbed eight rebounds.
And he might not be the Wildcats' best player.
James Young, a 6-6, 215 pounder, can handle the ball, shoot from distance, midrange, finish at the rim, rebound, and he is the best defender on a team that hasn't yet worked on a great deal of defense, according to Calipari. He finished with 25 points on 11 of 16 shooting, and had seven steals. Don't just gloss over that. The first time he walked onto the Rupp Arena court with somebody keeping stats, he matched what would've been the second-highest steal total in a game in school history, had it been an actual game.
The size, talent, depth, it's all there. You don't need Jay Bilas to draw it up. It's readily evident. Two of the standouts Tuesday, in fact, were guys nobody would've guessed -- Derek Willis, a freshman out of Bullitt East who had 21 points, and Dominique Hawkins from Madison Central, who had 11.
With this team, it's easy to leave guys out. You talk about a few who did well, then look down and there's another high school All-American, Dakari Johnson, who had 16 points and 11 rebounds. Aaron Harrison had 19 points, six assists.
"It's a scrimmage," Calipari said. "We haven't done pick-and-roll defense you could tell. We're still figuring out transition defense. But what you found out is you saw Dominique -- now you understood I had to trap him so he wouldn't go for 50 today, so I had the one team trap Dakari (Johnson) because he was going to kill them. He had 10 and 8 I think at half. You had Dominique. How did Dominique play? He belongs. There's that other kid, that big long kid, Derek Willis, who has no conscience whatsoever, just lets you go. Played well."
There weren't many fouls in the scrimmage, and Calipari would tell you, if he's candid, there wasn't much defense, with a few exceptions. That's pretty normal for these things.
It's also the challenge for Calipari as the season gets under way. If he can stamp out the AAU approach, the tendency to stand once the shot is on its way, and replace it with the kind of relentless effort that guys like Randle already are showing, he's going to have a group that is going to be special.
The NCAA's new defensive rules put a premium on individual offensive ability. UK has that at every position. It puts a premium on quickness. The team would appear to have that. Defensively, it gives preference to teams that can block shots. UK can do that.
It is built to succeed. Nothing it did Tuesday does anything to dim that prospect. Calipari has big men who can rip down rebounds and have no need of an outlet pass. Randle gets it and goes.
And the team's ability to play the game at a different altitude, with its height and leaping ability, is one that no one else in college basketball has to the degree that UK possesses.
What Calipari wants, is to give this talented collection an edge, if not a mean streak, then at the very least a more competitive streak. He doesn't just want them to desire winning. He wants them to want to beat people.
"This is so early, and yeah, these are a great bunch of kids," Calipari said. "They're all doing what we're asking them to do. Got to be more focused, a little more concentration. I'm going to do some things the next two weeks that every time we scrimmage, and we've done more scrimmaging than I've ever done in my life as a coach, in any time in my career. We're scrimmaging probably half the practice if not more, three quarters of the practice they're scrimmaging.
"We're going to now have winners and losers so someone runs. We're keeping score but we're not doing things. So I may give one unit a 12-point lead, and we're playing for real. Now, you're down 12, do you want to win or lose? You're up 12, do you want to win or lose? What are you doing? Whoever loses runs. We're going to do that from here on in. I need that competitive spirit. They showed it today. I saw the competitive spirit. It's in there. Now they've got to play that way every moment or someone else is going to be on the court. "
Inexperience will be an issue at some point. (Though it should be noted, the youngest team in each of the past two NCAA Tournament fields has made the title game.) There's a ton of stuff Calipari hasn't put in yet. Defense, right now, is improvisation. There will be obstacles to overcome. Regardless of the 40-0 talk, this team isn't perfect. But it may have the ability to come as close to that as any college team in a while.
WDRB Sports journalist Eric Crawford is a 22-year veteran of covering sports in the region and recently was voted LEO's Readers' Choice Award for Best Local Columnist. He co-authored Rick Pitino's new book, The One-Day Contract, and chronicled the University of Louisville's 2013 National Championship season in an electronic book, The Run. You can follow Eric on Twitter by clicking here, or on Facebook here.
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