Kentucky sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein said the Wildcats have the ability to be scary, but not yet.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – I voted Kentucky first in the Associated Press college basketball pre-season poll. A friend associated with the team laughed and shook his head when I told him that Monday night in Rupp Arena before the Wildcats defeated Montevallo, 95-72, in their final exhibition game.
"That's too high," he said. "We're just babies. We have to learn how to play hard and be tough."
Sure. Get out the Kleenex. There are first-round NBA Draft picks stashed on the Wildcats' bench. What other team in America has that?
"Doesn't matter," he said. "It takes time. It's too early."
Maybe. But I'm betting that John Calipari would not trade rosters with anybody, not Tom Izzo, Bill Self, Rick Pitino or Mike Krzyzewski. So how high would you rank this group?
"Maybe eighth," he said.
I think he was joking, trying to dial down the expectations surrounding Calipari's fifth Kentucky team. It's not easy finding a super-sized serving of joy in a season when expectations are to be great from the first dribble – and then keep improving. You've got to find reasons to high-five before March arrives. Enjoy the journey and all that motivational gunk.
That's difficult to do the way Calipari plays it, collecting more talent than everybody he plays. Not only are the Wildcats ranked first in most polls and magazines, their freshmen earned four of the 10 spots on the pre-season watch list for the Wayman Tisdale Award, which is presented to the top freshman in the country. No other conference placed more than two guys on the list.
But maybe my friend wasn't joking.
The Wildcats were good Monday. They weren't overpowering. They won comfortably, but they didn't make it appear that Montevallo, a Division II program, didn't belong on the floor. There were moments when they looked like number one – and moments they looked like number eight.
Kentucky had five guys in double figures and another with nine. But without starting point guard Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats had more turnovers (16) than assists (14). That's the first thing that had Calipari reaching for the antacids. His team only knocked loose five steals, and the visitors shot better than 47 percent in the first half. Didn't Michael Kidd-Gilchrist produce five steals by clearing his throat?
"I thought we played better than we did the last game and that's all I'm asking," Calipari said. "We're a ways away now folks.
"We're still not a good team offensively or defensively. When I say team, one guy is breaking down. Two guys are breaking down. One guy forgets where to go. One guy holds the ball too long …
"It's not like guys we're being selfish. It's just that you've got to play more for your team than yourself."
Willie Cauley-Stein, the team's sophomore center, had a more colorful description of what was going on, perhaps because Calipari lectured him several times about the lack of persistence that he showed rebounding the basketball.
"We're making strides," Cauley-Stein said. "There's still a lot of work on. Just the team chemistry. You're still playing like you're in high school where you can take every shot.
"You can't do that. You've got to play for everybody else and try to get everybody else plays. That's how the energy goes up. You're flying around on defense and you get another steal and you got another guy getting a dunk. That's where you've got to go.
"We're not all the way there yet. You see it in spurts. Once we get there where we're flying around like that for 40 minutes, it's going to be scary."
WHERE'S ANDREW? – Freshman point guard Andrew Harrison watched this exhibition from a seat next to his teammates on bench. Harrison has a contusion on his right knee. He did not participate in warm-ups, but the word is that the Kentucky staff is optimistic that he'll be able to play in two-or-three days.
John Calipari went with Harrison's twin brother, Aaron, and senior Jarrod Polson as the starting backcourt. Aaron Harrison pleased his coach by delivering seven assists without a turnover in 33 minutes. He scored 10 points.
"Hopefully today being off and tomorrow being off, Andrew can come back Wednesday and we can start," Calipari said. "But if he can't, he'll be out until he's ready to go."
"The guys finished the balls that I threw," Harrison said. "They really weren't tough passes. They were probably tougher shots to make than passes. They made me look good on the stat sheet."
RISING RANDLE – As long as I'm making premature evaluations, there's no reason to stop here. So I'll take Julius Randle as the Go-To guy whenever Kentucky needs a basket in the halfcourt.
He's got a signature move – a spinning twist through the lane. He's got hands like Jerry Rice. He's not afraid of contact. He wants the ball. He can step back and make a three-point shot. He scored 21 points on only 13 shots and added 11 rebounds. Randle's play has already inspired comparisons to other lefties, like Derrick Coleman or Michael Beasley.
The only problem?
Calipari doesn't like the signature move. College scouting reports will result in defenders playing him for that move and drawing charges. Calipari wants him to attack with his right hand instead of always spinning back to his left.
JAMES YOUNG SCORES – FOR BOTH TEAMS
James Young scored 18 points – 16 points for Kentucky and two for Montevallo.
He actually deserved more than two points. It was more like a perfect 10. Young chased down a shot that Willie Cauley-Stein blocked along the sideline at the Montevallo end of the court. As he was racing out of bounds, he grabbed the basketball and tried to save it by throwing it backwards around his left side.
The ball sailed high into the air – and into the net.
Two points Montevallo – even though it was a 25-footer. You can't score three points in the opponents' goal, no matter how beautiful that shot is. It was credited as a team basket.
"It made me laugh," Calipari said.
"I thought we were on a break," Cauley-Stein said. "I thought we were going to have a dunk. It was cool. Too bad it wasn't on our end."
NEXT MAN UP – Word is that Kentucky will draw its fourth commitment in the 2014 class on Tuesday. Trey Lyles, the power forward from Indianapolis Tech High School, is expected to pick Kentucky over Louisville, the other program he is considering.
UP NEXT – Kentucky opens its season Friday when UNC-Asheville visits Rupp Arena. The Bulldogs lost six of their first seven last season – and also lost six of their last seven.
In between those two awful stretches, they weren't bad, finishing 16-16, 10-6 in the Big South Conference. Ken Pomeroy ranks them 218th nationally to start the season. Kentucky also hosts Northern Kentucky on Sunday before traveling to Chicago to play second-ranked Michigan State at the United Center on Nov. 12.