LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- The best thing to do in this situation is probably to let University of Kentucky coach John Calipari say the words. He said them to his team after Friday night's 76-42 season-opening exhibition win over Transylvania, then repeated them to the media.
"That doesn't look like the No. 1 team to me," Calipari said.
That makes two of us, then, who thought that. And probably more -- not that being No. 1 in November is any kind of big deal.
Still, the story that had been sold on this UK team was that it was stocked with the best available high school talent and that Calipari would be able to open the box and, with minimal tinkering, push the button and have a title contender on his hands.
But after a first half in which the Wildcats led a painfully inexperienced and small Transylvania team 41-30, it became easier to see three little words on this Wildcat box that might've been overlooked before.
"Some assembly required."
It's never as easy as it looks. There's always some weird-shaped series of screws or instructions in Chinese that you have to contend with. It's not the end of the world. It's just the end of the notion that this is the best team in college basketball on Day 1.
It isn't. Michigan State should be No. 1. Louisville should be No. 2. Then throw the Wildcats in there anywhere with the next group, though it wouldn't have wanted to tangle with any Top 10 team Friday night.
So, there's that. But something doesn't feel quite right about all this.
Calipari complained about his team's lack of defensive intensity in the first half, but he didn't press for much of the half. He called his team passive, and it did seem perfectly content to let Transy run down the shot clock on every trip without much ball-pressure at all.
Calipari came down on his team like a ton of bricks after the game. But don't forget this: That's a whole lot preferable, and more useful for everyone in blue, than the beatdown most people expected.
The night began with Transylvania coach Brian Lane nearly apologizing for the anticipated lopsided result on UK's pregame radio show with IMG Sports. Understand, his team has 13 freshmen on the roster, and not McDonald's All-Americans. These guys look more like guys who might work at McDonald's. They're small. They had one player taller than 6-6.
Lane was worried. Then after the game, he seemed just as apologetic that the expected blowout didn't happen. He said that he clearly wasn't playing to win, just milking the clock and playing a sagging defense that the Wildcats hadn't seen before, but are sure to see more.
"It's so awkward when you're playing with smaller guys," he said. ". . . They were throwing up some shots that they probably haven't been throwing up all preseason because they haven't had a mosquito at their knee trying to swat their shot."
Yep, there's nothing more dangerous than a wounded mosquito. Still, Calipari was having none of it, because the whole scenario was just too useful. For a group of guys who have had nothing but praise since the day they committed to UK, a little adversity can go a long way for John Calipari.
I don't know how much of this mini-struggle with Transylvania was actual struggle, and how much was the natural result of a passive approach for the sake of illustrating what a passive approach will get you. I don't doubt Calipari wanted guys playing harder on defense. He also didn't have them pressing end line to end line, and didn't dial up a great deal of pressure on Transy ballhandlers, which he most assuredly could have done.
"Energy and effort trumps talent," Calipari said. "It just does. It always has, it always will."
That's a message more readily received after a less-than stellar start than after, say, the kind of beatdown that last season's team gave Transy (a 74-28 UK win). Now, telling your guys that energy trumps talent after they've beaten some hapless bunch by 34 isn't the easiest sell, but you take what you can get.
By the time he sat down in front of UK fans for his postgame radio interview with Tom Leach, Calipari was even more demonstrative with his explanation.
"We cannot be a better execution team than these teams we're going to play," he said. "They've been together three years. There's just no way. So you just have to win on defense, rebounding, effort, passionate play. Then what takes over is our talent and our instincts. Then all of a sudden you're not going to lose very many. We just have to get there. But right now, I don't think they believe what I'm saying. At some point the only thing that changes you is crisis. Crisis brings about change. Sometimes you need a crisis. Hopefully this first half showed us, look, if a team comes in prepared with an idea that they're going to sag on defense and fly up and down the court and grind you down defensively till you shoot an open three, and you're not going to play with energy, then you're getting beat. If you play with energy you get after it defensively and get a block and now you're running to the other end and getting layups and dunks. . . . We learned some great lessons and got some great film we can watch."
-- Julius Randle could play point guard for this team if it needed him to. He handles it well, and early on without Andrew Harrison (bruised knee) he was the creator for the Wildcat offense. It speaks to the all-around ability of the 6-9, 250-pounder. He finished with five turnovers, but also had 16 points, 12 rebounds and a pair of assists. James Young had 9 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, three steals and a block. Those two are going to be a handful, no matter who the Wildcats play.
-- Calipari said his next challenge will be to find enough playing time for Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee, who saw only nine minutes on Friday night. Johnson and Cauley-Stein could rotate without any problem, but Lee needs to be on the court. He brings instant energy; he just isn't yet equipped to play the power forward spot. "You gotta play Marcus Lee," Calipari said. "So who doesn't play? Somebody. Who is it?"
-- Going into the season, my assumption was that UK's size and athleticism made the Wildcats a nightmare matchup for Louisville. That might yet wind up being the case. But after watching UK and Transy, it turns out I was wrong. At this point in the season, and don't forget that phrase, at this point in the season -- before the first real game has even been played -- I have ascribed the nightmare to the wrong team. Calipari will put the Wildcats through a pair of practices Saturday and two more Sunday to begin rectifying that.
There's nothing wrong with this UK team. It'll get Andrew Harrison back and Calipari will make a few moves to smooth out his playing rotation. He'll deliver his message and they'll get it. If there was a red flag Friday night it's that at one point when Jon Hood finished a lob slam, Calipari had to turn to the bench and tell them to get up and cheer. For a while, he's going to have to tell his young team everything.
It's not as easy as it looks. But the talent is there, without question. The only message the season-opening exhibition sent is that there's some assembly required.
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