NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Youth served Kentucky very well two seasons ago. Four eventual first-round draft picks, including freshman and top pick Anthony Davis and three other underclassmen, led the Wildcats to their eighth national championship.
Last year, it was not so much, as the new crop of high school All-Americans turned collegians never clicked. Kentucky wouldn’t even make the NCAA Tournament for a chance to defend its national title, but rather be bounced from the NIT in the first round by Robert Morris.
It’s another year, and it’s another group of Kentucky whippersnappers with a world of expectations heaped upon them. In today’s 71-62 win at Vanderbilt, the 14th-ranked Wildcats, who entered the season ranked No. 1 in the country, started four freshmen and a sophomore.
"I’m still trying to figure this team out," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose team opened Southeastern Conference play Wednesday with an 85-63 win over Mississippi State and has a modest three-game winning streak
"I am looking around the country (at other teams)," he added, "and I don’t see anybody there. So, this is all good. I love my team. I love their progress. We have the biggest upside of any team in the country."
According to Kentucky media relations, the website KenPom.com ranks the Wildcats (12-3, 2-0) as the youngest team in the country with 0.24 years of average roster experience. That’s the youngest team in the country since the service started tracking roster experience in 2007, eclipsing The Citadel team of 2008 that had 0.27 years of experience.
"We’re the youngest team in the country," Calipari said of his roster that has nine freshmen. "That’s what we are. And I just have to have patience when I have none."
Sophomore center Willy Cauley-Stein, an elder statesman among the Wildcats and the only non-freshman starter, had a team-high 15 points.
"I think we played really good as a team," said the 7-foot Cauley-Stein, "and that’s been one of the biggest things this year is, you know, the word this year is we’re not a good team. We got selfish guys.
"But I mean the last couple days in practice, we have been getting closer basketball wise as a team and then the game just showed. Like we really do have each other’s back and we really do got good guys."
Freshman forward Julius Randle, considered by many as the top player in the country, was held to seven points, but pulled a game-high 11 rebounds with all coming in the first half.
"When Julius catches the ball, he’s got three guys on him," Calipari said of the 6-9, 250-pound Randle, who tops the team by averaging a double-double in scoring and rebounding. "I don’t know if there is another college player (who faces that). You would have to tell me who that would be.
" â¦ He’s not just running up and down the court. He’s like in a football game."
The Harrison twins — freshman guards Aaron and Andrew — had 14 and 10 points, respectively, for the Wildcats.
"They really dominated us on the boards, which they do to most people," said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, whose team was outrebounded 41-28 despite getting a team-high 11 rebounds from freshman center Damian Jones.
"To me, they are more physical than they are athletic," Stallings said of the Wildcats. "And they really use their physicality well. … It’s clean physicality. It’s playing hard."
Vanderbilt leading scorer Rod Odom was not a factor in the game because of foul trouble. The 6-9 senior forward picked up his third foul in the first half and fourth within the first 3 minutes of the second half. He finished with only five points — nearly nine less than his season average and his lowest output of the season.
Compounding Odom’s lack of production was that the Vanderbilt roster had dwindled to seven scholarship players. Earlier in the week, sophomore guard Eric McLellan, the team’s previous leading scorer, was dismissed from the team for violation of academic and team policies.
"It really hurt having Rod in foul trouble in this game," Stallings said. "Not that we would have won the game, obviously, but that really saddled us. In a game like this, we really need to have him to be as productive as he can be."
Jones led the Commodores (8-6, 0-2) with a game-high 18 points, followed by junior guard Dai-Jon Parker and senior guard Kyle Fuller with 17 points each.
After leading 30-22 at halftime, Kentucky steadily built its lead and used a 14-6 run for a 53-39 lead midway through the second half. Consecutive 3-pointers by the Harrisons were followed by a follow shot from sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who had nine points and four rebounds in 19 minutes, to cap the run.
The Commodores did make it interesting in the waning minutes when Odom and Fuller made consecutive 3-pointers to pull within 65-58 with 1:59 remaining. But the Wildcats made enough free throws down the stretch to settle into the nine-point victory.
Both Kentucky and Vanderbilt started the game shooting poorly from the field as each made only three of its first 10 shots. But a slam dunk by Randle and a 3-pointer by Andrew Harrison ended the Wildcats’ slow start for a 15-6 lead midway through the first half.
The Commodores would miss three more shots to start the game 3-for-13 from the field, but consecutive field goals by Fuller, Odom and Parker stopped the Kentucky surge and pulled Vanderbilt back to within 15-12.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Parker kept the Commodores in stride with Kentucky at 23-20. But the Wildcats scored the next seven points, including a 3-pointer by senior guard Jarrod Polson for a 30-20 lead, their biggest of the half, before settling into a 30-22 lead at intermission.
The sluggish first half was evidenced by neither team shooting well from the field. Kentucky made only 10-of-28 shots for 35.7 percent, while Vanderbilt wasn’t much better, making 10-of-26 shots for 38.5 percent.
Kentucky shot better in the second half at 48.5 percent to finish at a respectable 42.6 percent for the game. The Commodores were even better from the field in the second half — making 62.5 percent of their shots to finish at 50 percent for the game — to stay within striking distance throughout.
"I’ve got a brand new team," Calipari said. "And every year, it’s something different. And as we develop, we start figuring out how we have to play."