CRAWFORD | Kentucky strolls past Columbia, sets sights on the Ta - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Kentucky strolls past Columbia, sets sights on the Tar Heels

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In some ways, a flat performance against Ivy League visitor Columbia was to be expected from the No. 1-ranked University of Kentucky basketball team.

It's the final week of fall classes. The Wildcats were pushed as hard as they have been all season by No. 6 Texas last Friday. Their next game, on Saturday, comes in a national TV matchup against North Carolina.

So in retrospect, maybe the Wildcats' lackluster 56-46 win before a Rupp Arena crowd of 22,112 shouldn't be too big a shock.

And yet, it is. Columbia, as an Ivy League member, doesn't give athletic scholarships. Its last basketball All-American was Chet Forte in 1951, and he later became best known not for his hoops exploits, but as the first director of Monday Night Football.

Let's put it this way. Kentucky has produced 43 first-round NBA Draft picks in its storied basketball history. Columbia has produced 43 Nobel Prize laureates. It also has churned out 28 Academy Award winners, 20 living billionaires, three U.S. Presidents and five of the nation's Founding Fathers. That's old school — literally.

Not even Warren Buffett (M.S. in Economics, Columbia '51) was putting any money on the Lions against Kentucky. When it comes to basketball, smart money favors Bluegrass over Ivy, every time. Las Vegas favored the Wildcats by 26.

These Columbia kids probably have better odds of owning an NBA team than playing for one. What? Did I say “probably?” Omit that word, citizen-editors.

But here Columbia was, leading No. 1-ranked UK 11-0, and holding the Wildcats scoreless for the game's first five minutes. And they kept it up. They led 25-23 at half. They led at the first TV timeout of the second half, and then the second. Nobody thought they'd keep it up. But their deliberate style was slowing the game to the point that you didn't see Kentucky running too far away, in any event.

Kentucky eventually flexed its muscles just long enough to pull away in the closing minutes. Columbia's early three-point shooting reverted to form in the second half, and Kentucky, as it has in every game this season, ratcheted up its ball pressure and asserted itself on the boards. But there were some concerned faces in Rupp Arena, not the least of which came from the guy in the gray suit on the bench.

John Calipari described his team's first-half effort like this: “There was no fire. There was no bus. There was no nothing.”

Kentucky was missing two players, as was mentioned multiple times the ESPN2 broadcast. Freshmen guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker were out with minor injuries, forcing Calipari to dip deeper onto his bench to fill out his second platoon.

“My other two guards being out affected the energy of the game,” Calipari told ESPN2 in a postgame interview. “You just saw it. It wasn't the same energy in the game. Now in the second half I thought Andrew and Aaron (Harrison) played with more energy, but it's hard to do a whole game. I mean, it's just hard to do.”

Later, with the assembled media, Calipari said, “That's what the platoons have done for us. It hides all this, because instead of getting seven minutes of that, you get two.”

I get it. You're missing your defensive spark plug off the bench, and your best perimeter shooter, it's going to make a difference. It's the truth. You could see it.

But don't expect anyone to feel too bad for the Wildcats. Minus those two guards, Calipari still sent seven McDonald's All-Americans onto the court. That's more than Columbia has McDonald's restaurants within walking distance of its campus — and it's in Manhattan. Stony Brook and Loyola (Md.) managed to beat Columbia without a single prep All-American.

So let's just call this what it is — a mail-it-in night. Or maybe in this day and age college players email it in or text it in instead. Whatever, the Wildcats are entitled. Final exams are under way. They beat a Top 10 team last weekend. They face a nationally prominent program next weekend.

There are nights when you just do enough to win, and this was one of them for the Wildcats.

The good news? Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't at his best, but he still was the biggest difference-maker on the court. When he's guarding the perimeter, he not only prevents his man from shooting threes, but he prevents other guys from pulling the trigger just because of his ability to challenge. At one point last night, I saw him battle for a long rebound, not get it, then run around a smaller guard and turn back to face him and apply pressure before he had even crossed mid-court. That's just flat impressive. His mobility on both ends is unlike anything else anyone in college basketball can do. My apologies for repeating myself.

The other positive came from Trey Lyles. The freshmen was working so hard that Calipari rewarded him with the second-half start, and it'll be a surprise if he isn't running with the first platoon before the end of the season, along with Towns and Cauley-Stein. It's a mammoth front line, but extremely skilled.

The Wildcats had only four turnovers. They got one big second-half break on an offensive foul that was whistled on Columbia with 10:49 to play and their lead at five. But big-name teams always get breaks at home in these games, and Columbia did little to get itself to the free-throw line, content to kill the shot clock.

Columbia did all it could for the talent level it had. And mentioned only once in the ESPN2 telecast was that the Lions were also missing their leading scorer — Alex Rosenberg, who suffered a broken leg and withdrew from school before the season to maintain his eligibility to play for Columbia next season. The Ivy League doesn't allow injury redshirts. You get four seasons to play and four years of school. Period. So he's withdrawn from school and is seeking a waiver from the league. He attends every home game on his parents' season tickets, because he's not allowed to sit on the bench.

Columbia could've used him Wednesday, but it didn't matter.

In this game, Kentucky was going to do whatever it had to do, but not a whole lot more. It just so happened to be a game against the fifth-best team the Wildcats have faced yet.

The Harrison twins were 1-of-10 from three-point range. Andrew Harrison was 1 of 12 from the field in 32 minutes. Aaron Harrison scored a team-high 14 points in a team-high 33 minutes. Calipari said he's not worried about his team's shooting, that it will come around, and that he'll probably install some new offensive wrinkles after the team returns from spending Christmas at home. He told ESPN2 he plans three-a-day “Camp Cal” sessions.

Columbia got 16 points from Maodo Lo, and was outscored in the paint just 30-20.

The Lions held the lead for nearly 24 minutes in Rupp Arena against the No. 1 team in the nation. You can't exactly put it on a banner, but you can talk to the kids about it someday.

For UK, it's time to wake up before North Carolina comes to town. Given its previous performances against nationally ranked teams, I suspect it will. Calipari wasn't clear on whether Booker or Ulis will be available.

“Don't know yet,” Calipari said. “I hope so. I basically said if you don't practice tomorrow you're not playing Saturday. So if they can't practice, then they won't play.”

For Columbia, when it comes to basketball, Kentucky is a different world. But when the Lions paid it a visit Wednesday, they left with a performance they should be proud of.

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