CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WDRB) -- It's now fair to say, after Saturday's 82-77 loss at North Carolina, that the season has not started out the way the University of Kentucky had hoped. Not the way its coach hoped, nor its players, nor its fans.
Three tests against ranked teams away from Rupp Arena, three losses. In retrospect, what did we expect? The losses don't sound unreasonable, given Kentucky's youth, and the level of competition. But when you get up at Big Blue Madness and say, "We are college basketball," when you utter the words 40-0, when NBA scouts exit your preseason workouts salivating about which of your freshmen will be the top pick in next season's draft, when you have SIX of the previous season's McDonald's All-Americans, the losses then become to look, forgive the term, super-sized.
"My hope," John Calipari said when asked what he expected of this young group, "was that we would be, like, the best team in the last 12 years."
The hope was that talent would overcome the mistakes, growing pains and rough patches, that no matter what shortcomings developed in execution or even coaching, these Wildcats would be good enough to fix it on the fly, and keep winning.
Basketball is a beautiful thing. No matter how talented you are, you can't do it by yourself. You have to learn the team game, and play it.
You can focus on all the parts of UK's struggles. There are plenty of reasons they haven't broken through with a big win on the road or even a neutral court. And it's not just this group. UK hasn't beaten a non-conference opponent on the road since it won at Louisville on New Year's Eve of 2010. It has lost nine of its last 10 games away from Rupp Arena dating back to last season.
There's a reason Calipari doesn't like road games, and that he pulled the plug on going to Assembly Hall in Bloomington. They're messy. The touch fouls they don't call on you at home, they call on the road. UK had three starters with two fouls each within 12 minutes on Saturday. Calipari blew up at the end of the first half, got a technical when Willie Cauley-Stein picked up his third foul, then waved off ESPN reporter Janine Edwards as he headed into the locker room.
Look, Janine has gotten worse treatment from a UK coach than that.
The road is rough. And when you're Kentucky, it's an event. "It's hard to play here," Calipari said. "Every game we play, it's a white-out, a blue-out, a red-out. Every game. Not just this game, every game. You knew that when you signed up for this, so you better get ready, because it's not changing. And our schedule doesn't get any easier. We did this kind of schedule because we had to find out right away, where are we? Where do we need to go?"
This is going to go one of two ways for UK. Either players are going to put their heads down, get disappointed and start thinking about draft day, or they're going to get tougher and learn. In the worst case scenario, players buy into discouragement. Guys who thought they'd be playing more check out emotionally, and the season -- while still pretty successful -- flames out.
Or UK will use the next couple of weeks to keep improving. And the team is improving. A loss at North Carolina is not a sign of any kind of apocalypse. UK now has two home games in the next two weeks, the second of which will be against a Louisville team that could be in the top five, and which will be played in Rupp Arena. Calipari has a chance to work with his players, and they should be in a mood to listen after losing again in a big national TV game.
Here's the problem for Calipari. Everything about his program is "Players First." But once he gets them to school, he asks them to become "team first." That's a tough transition to make. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were team-first guys from the day they walked onto campus. That's how they operated.
These freshmen? We'll have to see. But right now, Calipari says that's a problem area.
"What we are right now is we're not a good basketball team, and we're not a good team because everything, our emotion, is all based on our individual play instead of our team," Calipari said. ". . . Our (emotion) is all based on ‘Did I miss a free throw? Did I get beat on the dribble? Did I miss a shot? Did I turn it over?'
". . . They've just got to -- if you want to keep losing, keep acting that way. We're not a good team, and players aren't looking real good. That's what happens -- when your team doesn't play well individual players look bad too. And so when they really hit that spot where it's like ‘OK, we have to do this together.' We're just not there right now."
If you're looking for signs of improvement within the loss, I'll give you two, and they both have the last name Harrison. If you'd told me that Aaron and Andrew Harrison would combine for 37 points, I'd have told you UK was walking out of the Dean Dome a winner.
To me, those guards were the biggest questions on this team, and perhaps the one thing more than any other that could block its tournament potential. The guards that showed up in Chapel Hill Saturday can win in March. They didn't get much support elsewhere. But they made plays. Aaron Harrison couldn't be stopped -- except by foul trouble. Andrew had four turnovers, but that's going to happen when you play 37 minutes against North Carolina, and he also had seven assists. Those guys were good enough to win.
Julius Randle, on this night, wasn't. Here's another example of Calipari's philosophy creating a conflict. He said before the season that he wants Randle learning to play on the perimeter for the next level. But what UK needs to win games now is Randle to park his backside in the block and score or dish whenever it is entered. That's how he blew up against Michigan State. His game should grow out of that, rather than start at the outside and work its way in.
Calipari also has to figure out his bench rotation, but he's working on it. Dominique Hawkins brings energy and effort, but UK was minus-14 when he was on the court Saturday. At one point, Calipari had Marcus Lee at the scorer's table set to check in, then pulled him back, and Lee never got into the game. Dakari Johnson is a good player who just isn't getting a chance to get into any kind of rhythm.
In all, it's far too early to panic with this team. All panic buttons in the Bluegrass should be deactivated. You can push them all you want, but they aren't hooked up. All teams have to learn the lessons this UK team has to learn. I'm not straying from that line.
Even after three losses to three ranked opponents, I say there is still championship potential on this team. Maybe more potential because of the losses than in spite of them.
But unless each of those talented players gets rid of the "player first" and picks up the "team first," it's not going to happen.