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Forgrave: With leader ailing, Calipari's young 'Cats grow up in win
On Saturday afternoon, before Kentucky's 73-66 victory over Louisville — the sixth-ranked team in the nation, the defending national champion, and most important in this hoops-mad state the hated cross-state rival of Big Blue Nation — a thick stack of papers sat in the media room, lined with Kentucky’s pregame notes.
At the bottom was one curious note.
"According to KenPom.com, the Wildcats rank 351st in the country in total experience, which is considered the least experienced squad in the nation,” it read. “The average experience of 0.23 years is the youngest collection of players in the history of KenPom’s rankings dating back to 2007."
This was not some humble-brag, where John Calipari & Co. could point at their extreme youth to emphasize this year's historically great recruiting class, the first ever to feature six McDonald’s All-Americans. Nor was it a way to excuse Kentucky stumbling out of the gate during the first seven weeks of the season, going from a team that had some dreaming of a 40-0 season to a team that dropped each of its first three games against ranked opponents.
It was merely a fact, and the single most important fact to start with when you are discussing anything about these Kentucky Wildcats. You start here: They are the youngest team in college basketball, and the most talented, too.
So when the game began and Louisville burst to an 8-0 lead, you had to wonder: Was this the youth once again wilting on the big stage?
Then as the first half wore on, the Kentucky team showed why all this preseason promise could soon become reality. The 'Cats cleaned up the glass, rebounding an astounding 11 of their 20 missed field goals in the first half. Willie Cauley-Stein dominated the Louisville frontcourt with two blocks and six boards in the first half, showing why he's developing into a lottery-level talent.
And leading it all in Kentucky’s dominating first half was Julius Randle, the beast with the pretty touch and the man around whom this young team revolves. He drove from the perimeter, wove through traffic and slammed down a dunk. He did the same thing from the opposite side of the court and finished with a pretty baby hook. A behind-the-back dribble in transition, a nifty little fadeaway, a bully to the basket, a rim-rattling dunk on a putback: He is the type of player you wish came with real-life DVR so you could rewind all his highlights, just to make sure they actually happened.
Earlier this season, Randle's teammates seemed to be content with sitting back and watching him perform magic with the basketball, too. This has been a problem for Kentucky. When Randle hasn't played up to par against top opponents — like his 11-point, five-rebound performance in the loss to North Carolina — Kentucky has faltered.
And so, when Randle grabbed his midsection and wobbled off the floor near the beginning of the second half, you had to wonder: Could Kentucky win this game — its last chance to get a confidence boost before conference play begins on Jan. 8 — with Randle stumbling to the locker room?
Calipari preferred to avoid that question altogether. His top scorer and rebounder was cramping up, so Calipari instructed his trainers to pump him full of IV fluids. They did, squeezing three bags of the stuff into him as his teammates kept the game close. Randle came back on the floor, clearly in agony, and then froze up and limped to the bench minutes later.
With 11:01 left in the game, and with the score tied at 51, Randle had seen his last action of the game — a dominating first half followed by a second half with zero points, zero rebounds, zero field goal attempts.
Surely the youngest team in college basketball would collapse.
Instead, it blossomed.
“Thought we grew up today,” Calipari said afterward. “This is the youngest team I’ve ever coached, ever. I’m learning. Believe me when I tell you, I’ve never coached a team this young, and so there's so many things that we're doing, trying to figure out as we go.''
This was about sophomore Alex Poythress — the guy who caught so much criticism last season for playing without a motor — revving his team up, spelling Randle and playing unselfish, heads-up basketball that made his team 20 points better than Louisville when he was on the floor.
This was about sharpshooter James Young missing a lot of shots — he went only 5-of-17 from the floor, netting 18 points and corralling 10 rebounds — but making the shots that mattered most, like the three he drained moments after Louisville's Luke Hancock drilled a big three to bring Louisville within four points toward the end of the game.
This was about Andrew Harrison, the talented but frustrating freshman point guard, finally learning to play within himself; he had his best college game not because of his 18 points but because of plays like when he drove into traffic with less than two minutes left, but instead of forcing a shot he fed it to Poythress for a game-clinching dunk.
“This is about players playing as a team,” Calipari said afterward. “This team is becoming a good team. We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn’t play together, they had no shot in this game.''
No matter how much talent is on this squad of future NBA players, Kentucky still will have some bumps in the road. The Wildcats' awful free-throw shooting (16 of 30 against Louisville) and poor three-point shooting (three of 14 on Saturday) will bite them in the rear more than once. So will the times when their inexperience shows with boneheaded plays; Calipari counted five or six of those on Saturday.
But Saturday might still end up being seen as the moment the scales fell from this young team's eyes. Until Saturday the Wildcats had devoured every cupcake on their schedule — a 29-point win over Texas-Arlington! — and wilted against every top-25 team they played. These Kentucky Wildcats seemed like they were the opposite of last year's Louisville Cardinals: Instead of a team that made each other better, they were a collection of big-time talents where the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
But this team could rip off a run in SEC play, romp through March, head all the way to the Final Four, and become the Kentucky team we'd envisioned when we spoke of what it meant when five of the nation's top nine recruits went to the same school. If that's what this team becomes, we'll be able to point to the second half against Louisville — their biggest star cramping up, their confidence waning, the preseason world-beaters seemingly on the verge of dropping out of the top 25 before the new year — as the moment this team came together.
“When Julius got hurt, it was a tie game, but we all believed we could still win,” Andrew Harrison said. “That's growing up in itself. ... That's just showing how much heart this team has. I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that. But we knew we could win this game. And going against a great team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it.''
After the game, Young was asked: Was this something this team needed, to battle through some adversity and come through the other end?
His answer was telling: “Probably just to show people we could do it without Julius,” he said.
“But we really couldn't have done it without him, because he really did his thing in the first half. We really had to come closer together as a team, and that's what we did.''
They came together. They beat a very good Louisville team. They shot themselves with a boost of confidence heading into the new year.
Right before our eyes, the youngest team in college basketball grew up.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.