It was a ridiculously high standard, first of all, for the talented but treacherously young University of Kentucky basketball team. Then again, it came from the program's head coach, who said before the season that going unbeaten is something he'd always wanted to do.
This will not be the season. The No. 1 ranked Wildcats fell to No. 2 Michigan State 78-74 in the State Farm Champions Classic in the United Center Tuesday night, unable in the end to overcome more youthful mistakes than you can count.
But in the earliest meeting of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in Associated Press poll history, the main takeaway for UK coach John Calipari is that the Wildcats almost did.
Despite being shredded 21-2 in fast-break points and getting eight turnovers from national player of the year candidate Julius Randle, the Wildcats came back from a 15-point deficit to tie the game at 66 with 4:48 left.
At that point, Michigan State's Keith Appling made an open three-pointer from the right wing, and UK never pulled even again. After the game, Calipari made an interesting observation.
"I remember the North Carolina game (in 2012)," Calipari said. "Anthony Davis blocked that shot. So, ahhh."
The difference between championships and disappointments are in little moments. After Appling made his three, Gary Harris got a steal and a layup and within 10 seconds, Michigan State was back up five.
Late in the game, leading by only two, Michigan State was running down the clock for a final shot. Denzel Valentine drove the lane and missed a runner, but Branden Dawson went unchecked to the offensive boards and tipped the ball in, and that was that.
"Basically, I told them they got the three in the corner because we were late getting there," Calipari said. "We just didn't bum rush him and it's the game. . . . And then the second one was a tip-in. That's how you lose a game? Those are effort plays."
There were plenty of problems before that, however. UK fell behind 10-0 before the first TV timeout, committing turnovers in bunches against Michigan State's aggressive defense. Every time Randle touched the ball and tried his favorite move -- a spin into the lane -- the Spartans were there with a defender to dig the ball away from him.
Calipari said he was surprised his team was only down 12 at half.
"It should've been 20 at half, and you all know that," Calipari said. "We changed a little bit how we played, they were sagging so bad that we couldn't run dribble-drive, so we said we'll call plays every time down if we don't get a breakout layup."
On media day, Calipari talked about his decision to put Randle at small forward.
"I could play him at seven feet and try to win college games, tell him, I'm really helping you, or I can make him play out on the floor like we did Patrick Patterson," Calipari said.
Randle, in the first half, got the ball out on the floor and had four points and four turnovers. In the second half, Calipari decided to win a college game, gave Randle the ball in the post and outscored a much more experienced team by eight points. Randle finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, and left the gym acknowledged as perhaps the most dominant player in the nation -- if not the best, after the show Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker put on in the nightcap.
"Randle," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, "doesn't need to improve. I'm fine if he stays the way he is. Those other guys need to improve. . . . Kentucky is going to get a lot better. But I really believe that we are too. We weren't great by any stretch. Some of it was them."
The biggest concern moving forward for UK is guard play. Andrew Harrison finished with 11 points but had four turnovers and neither he, nor his brother Aaron, could do much with Michigan State's guards. The Harrison's combined for 14 points, 5 assists, 6 turnovers, 2 rebounds and made 4 of 13 shots from the field.
For Michigan State, Appling and Dawson combined for 30 points, 10 assists, 17 rebounds, 4 turnovers and made 12 of 23 shots.
Appling led Michigan State with 22 points. Gary Harris had 20.
UK got 19 points from James Young, but only two after halftime.
"This kind of tournament is great for college basketball. It's terrific for the teams. It's just tough for a really young team," Calipari said. "I knew we would start that way. I told our staff, let's hope it doesn't get to 15-0, but I bet you it gets to 12.
"Throughout the game, instead of making that one extra pass, we held the ball. Julius had eight turnovers for one reason. He held the ball. You hold the ball, the close down on you with five guys. You can't play basketball that way."
Transition defense for UK was abysmal. The Wildcats gave up 21 fast-break point for a simple reason, according to Calipari. "We jogged back, they sprinted back."
The Wildcats also got bit once again by poor free-throw shooting. They made only 20 of 36, just 14 of 26 in the second half with the game in the balance.
"You miss 16 free throws you don't deserve to win the game. We were trying to throw it to a big man, you go 0-for-3 (from the line), I can't keep you in the game. This should be a great free throw shooting team and we're not. James Young, best shooter in the country, goes to the line and he's 2-for-5. So we've got to get to the bottom of that."
Calipari said he was proud that his team kept it close despite all of its mistakes, and that the group should improve a great deal.
"We don't have enough pride in our defense right now," he said. "But that's natural. Our team, we're going to be fine. I've got four months -- less than that now -- to get that right."
For Michigan State, Izzo called the game a "program win." While acknowledging it's just a November victory, he also said it was bigger than any normal game.
"Of course the game matters. When Magic Johnson flies back in from L.A., it matters," Izzo said. "We had a lot of guys come back for this game. Our program needed a program win, and this was one. But in the end, it doesn't matter. If we win the game we have 10,000 Tweets when we get home. If we lose the game, we have 100,000. That's the way it is."
Calipari said his players took the loss hard. Between the 40-0 discussion, and proclamations like "we are college basketball," he has set a high bar for his young players, talented as they are. But he already was trying to use the loss for greatest effect for the team.
"You had guys crying in there, which is a good thing," he said of the postgame locker room scene. "(Like) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana last year. You had kids crying in there, and I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention in the first half. The biggest thing I told them is if you don't do this together you will not win. You will never be a special team. So you have to truly do this together both on defense and offense."
Tuesday, August 26 2014 10:16 PM EDT2014-08-27 02:16:12 GMT
Teddy Bridgewater says thank you to U of L students in an ad in its student paper. Eric Crawford photo.
Teddy Bridgewater had one more classy move for University of Louisville students and fans -- he said Thank You with an ad in the semester's first edition of The Louisville Cardinal student newspaper.More >>
Teddy Bridgewater had one more classy move for University of Louisville students and fans -- he said Thank You with an ad in the semester's first edition of The Louisville Cardinal student newspaper. More >>
Wednesday, August 20 2014 9:47 PM EDT2014-08-21 01:47:16 GMT
With classes beginning on Monday, the University of Louisville says it still hasn't gotten word from the NCAA Clearinghouse on 6-9 signee Jaylen Johnson. Rick Pitino said his high school was slow submitting his paperwork.More >>
With classes beginning on Monday, the University of Louisville says it still hasn't gotten word from the NCAA Clearinghouse on 6-9 signee Jaylen Johnson. Rick Pitino said his high school was slow submitting his paperwork. More >>