The head coach of America’s most talented college basketball team walked toward the locker room at the United Center, looking like he had just survived a bruising 12-round boxing match and lost by unanimous decision.
"Wooooo," John Calipari wheezed Tuesday, after his No. 1-ranked, freshman-filled Kentucky Wildcats notched their first loss this season, to a more experienced, more poised No. 2-ranked Michigan State team.
He paused. "Man, oh man." He paused again and exhaled. "Whoa."
It was almost as if Calipari had bought into the media hype surrounding what most call an historically great recruiting class at Kentucky, as if he was shocked that this team didn’t coast to 40-0 and a national title. That wasn’t the case, of course.
Coach Cal never bought into the they-could-go-undefeated talk that has been swirling in basketball media circles. He has spent the better part of the past two months telling anyone who would listen — and in Big Blue Nation, everyone’s always listening — how young his team is, how inexperienced, how much work they need to put in, and how, despite these ridiculous talents, they are just now picking up the basics of learning to play as a team.
His team lost 78-74 because it did exactly what you expect freshmen to do: They were inconsistent, and they were sloppy. They turned the ball over 17 times. They missed 16 free throws.
Yet in the end they almost came back to win, despite their coach thinking they deserved to have been blown out.
When Calipari turned the corner and walked into the locker room, he saw some of his players were crying. After a nonconference loss. In November.
And Coach Cal loved it.
"I want it to hurt like that," said Calipari, harking back to the issues from a disappointing team last year that didn’t seem to have the desire he expects. "I knew this would get their attention … The biggest thing is, if you don’t do this together, you will not win. You’ll never be a special team. You got to truly do this together."
Like college kids crying in a locker room, it’s easy for any of us to get carried away with November wins or November losses. Perhaps it’s true that on Tuesday night’s doubleheader in Chicago — the first time in five years the No. 1 team in the AP poll has played No. 2, and the first time Kansas’ superfreshman Andrew Wiggins has faced Duke’s superfreshman Jabari Parker in a college game — we learned something about these four teams that will prove out on a much bigger stage come March.
We watched Michigan State outclass Kentucky, overcoming a monster second half by freshman manchild Julius Randle (27 points and 13 rebounds on the game) with superior point guard play by senior Keith Appling (22 points, eight assists, four steals and only three turnovers). Then we watched Kansas outlast Duke, overcoming another monster game by Parker (27 points and nine rebounds despite foul trouble) with a 22-point performance by Wiggins.
My theory about this college basketball season — that it’ll be a season in which the top teams feature experienced upperclassmen who help raise the game of the more talented but younger lottery-pick-caliber players — played out on Tuesday night. Michigan State saw its senior point guard obliterate Kentucky’s freshman blue-chipper, Andrew Harrison, and saw senior big man Adreian Payne avail himself well against Randle, who turned the ball over eight times. Kansas’ victory saw a team-high 24-point performance by sophomore Perry Ellis.
In a postgame interview for FOX Sports 1, I asked Michigan State coach Tom Izzo about how the youth-vs.-experience question played out in his team’s victory.
"Let’s face it: Johnny (Calipari) has a very good team," he said. "You can’t have seven first-round picks on a team and not be very good. But they are young. But we have some young guys, too. You can have young guys in age and young guys in minutes played. (We are) not as young as (Kentucky’s) freshmen, but not as gifted, either."
He then said something else that ought to be scary to the rest of college basketball: By NCAA tournament time, Calipari’s team will be much better, and so will Izzo’s.
You could say the same thing for Bill Self’s team, and Mike Krzyzewski’s too.
After two competitive and mostly well-played games between four of the nation’s best teams, it’s easy to get a bit too excited. It’s easy to get giddy over these freshmen who we’ll most definitely see for only one year in the college game. It’s easy to hope that these four teams will get together again for another doubleheader, next time on April 5 at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
"It’s also one week into our season, less than one week,"Self said afterward. "People are too giddy about certain guys because of the unknown. And when guys are seen and studied and figured out, there’s going to be a little bit of a roller coaster for all these young kids.
"There’s probably 15 other schools that are probably sick and tired of thinking this is a preview of a Final Four, (schools) that are really good, too. The great thing about this is it matters, but in the great scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. Basketball is so much different than football. We want to be playing our best in February and March, and the teams you saw tonight won’t be the teams you see later on."
This is what the casual fans complain about in college basketball: That November and December games don’t matter. But the players take it seriously; just ask the ones who were crying in the Kentucky locker room. And the fans take it seriously; just ask the Big Blue fans who were thinking this team really had a shot at a perfect season.
At the news conference after, Randle asked his coach to be excused. His legs were cramping.
"Told you to take yourself out (of the game)," Calipari joked.
"That was funny, I thought."
"Did somebody die?" Calipari said. "What’s going on here?"
What was going on was a bunch of people reading way too much into two fantastic November games that ultimately won’t impact anything come March. Even if Magic Johnson had flown in from Los Angeles just to watch his former school, Michigan State, beat the No. 1 team in the country, these were still November games.
And Calipari just wanted us all to have some perspective.
"We just did stuff that shot ourselves in the foot, but that’s what kids like this are going to do," he said. "Our team, we’re going to be fine. I’ve got four months to get this right."
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.