Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Kansas and Kentucky both can learn from last night

NEW YORK - Kansas is the favorite to win the Big 12 this season.

The Jayhawks have earned that right by winning seven straight Big 12 regular season titles and eight of the last nine. Baylor and Texas A&M both have good teams this season, but Big 12 supremacy won't be given away. It has to be earned. Texas A&M is dealing with their head coach's health issues and their star forward's knee injury. Baylor has is still trying to figure out who will run the point and how to win with Scott Drew coaching. While the Big 12 may be the most balanced conference in the country, there is no one in the league that can be considered a tier above the pack.

That's why the nod has to go to Kansas as the favorite.

And if any team is ever going to end the Jayhawk's reign atop the Big 12, this is the year to do it.

Kansas lost 75-65 to Kentucky at Madison Square Garden in the nightcap of the Champion's Classic on Tuesday. And while the final deficit was only ten points, in the second half it was quite clear -- Kansas was undeniably out-talented by Kentucky. By a wide margin. In the second half, when the Wildcats found their rhythm, Kansas got steamrolled.

It was further evidence that Kentucky may just be the best team in the country.

But the news wasn't all bad for Kansas.


I don't think there is any question who the most talented team in the country is.

Its Kentucky. When they put it all together, this team is an absolute joy to watch and nightmare to play against. They have size up and down their lineup. They are loaded with athletes. They run the floor. They have shooters that spread the floor and finishers around the rim. They have a point guard that is able to get those guys the ball. Maybe the best measure of just how good this team is is Kyle Wiltjer. He's a top 20 freshman and he can't sniff the court this season.

There's was a stretch of last night's game where I closed my computer, I put my phone down and I just watched Kentucky play. I sat back and I admired what this team is capable of. They are that good.

The problem?

That Kentucky team only showed up for second half of last night's game. In the first half, Kentucky looked like a completely different team. They turned the ball over 12 times, six of them coming from their freshman point guard Marquis Teague, and shot just 38.5% from the floor. The problem was offensive execution -- far too often, the dribble-drive motion offense that John Calipari preaches broke down into his players trying to go one-on-one.

"We broke off every play," Calipari said. "I told them after the game that what I'm going to have to start doing is that is you break off a play, you're coming out. You think its ok that you're supposed to go right and you go left because you feel like it, you're coming out."

"Everybody walked into that game today and they were going to do their own thing, and they did it."

Its no secret that the key to winning at the collegiate level is recruiting, the ability to identify talented players and bring them into the program. But talent alone doesn't win games. That's why Butler was able to make it to the last two national title games. Its why Memphis finished fourth in Conference USA last season. Its why the 2010-11 Kentucky team was able to make the Final Four and not the much-more talented 2009-2010 Kentucky team.

"Everybody thinks talent wins," Calipari said. "No. Talented players that play together win."

"The message I gave them yesterday was 'we don't compete with each other'. We compete with the other team. We push each other and we challenge each other, but we complete each other. We all do what we do and we play off one another and we complete the team. We don't compete with each other."

That's not the only issue that this Kentucky team has. This is a young group. Of the eight players that played last night, four were freshmen and two were sophomores. The two seniors on the roster? They both came off the bench. Its not difficult to foresee composure being a problem from this group.

Two incidents stuck out last night. In the first half, Teague just absolutely melted down. Six turnovers is way too high for a point guard, and Teague had that number in the first half. He was over-penetrating, he was throwing bad passes and he was getting himself caught in the air without anywhere to go with the ball. With every mistake, Teague tried harder to make up for it. Coach Cal even moved Teague to the off-guard spot, allowing Doron Lamb to handle the ball, but that didn't make much of a difference. Teague's disastrous first half was a major reason Kentucky found themselves down. The Wildcats were lucky that performance came against Kansas and not North Carolina; they could have dug a hole too deep to get out of.

Teague isn't the first Calipari point guard to deal with these issues, however. Brandon Knight had the same problem at the start of last season. John Wall did as well, although he was able to mask his turnover problem by hitting game-winner after game-winner.

Then midway through the second half, Terrence Jones was knocked to the ground by Thomas Robinson, who regained his balance by straddling Jones. Instead of stepping to the side, Robinson walked over Jones, similar to the way Scottie Pippen walked over Patrick Ewing in the 1992 NBA Playoffs. Jones' reaction was to get up and try and get into Robinson's face. He wasn't alone, as the rest of his team rushed over and started some pushing and shoving.

While somewhat justified -- I probably would have done the same thing if I were him -- the incident shined a light on another potential issue for the Wildcats: composure. What's going to happen if Jones catches an inadvertent elbow from John Henson? What happens if Kidd-Gilchrist, who was the most vocal when the two teams came together last night, gets knocked into the scorer's table by Chane Behanan? How will the Wildcats react? Will it take them out of their game? Will a punch get thrown?

When Terrence Jones -- a kid who sulked his way out of the lottery at the end of last year, preens after every made shot and walked away from a car accident to avoid the punishment -- is the leader for a young team, having concerns about composure and handling adversity is certainly warranted.

"They think they're in Orlando," Calipari said, referring to where the AAU national tournament is held, "and they've got another game tomorrow morning and one that afternoon."

"Now they're talking to the other team, you can't do that here. You want to talk, but you want to talk to your team. They're young. They don't know better."

There is one common thread in all of the criticisms about Kentucky: youth. This team is young. They are freshmen and sophomores. They will learn. They'll understand that at this level of basketball, the game isn't all 1-on-1. They'll learn how to fit into an offense and how to play a role on defense. They'll learn what is a good shot and what is a bad shot. They'll learn how to walk away from a confrontation.

And with the amount of talent that this group has on their roster, if they learn it by the end of this year, watch out.

"I don't want to say that [this is my most talented team] because I've had some pretty good teams," Cal said, "but this team has a chance to be special."


"I think we played better than them in the first half."

That's the first thing that Tyshawn Taylor said to the group of reporters that managed to track him down outside of the Kansas locker room 45 minutes after the game had ended.

And you know what? He was right.

A lot of Kentucky's struggles were self-inflicted. Marquis Teague was playing out of control, Kentucky was breaking off their sets too early, Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis were taking some ill-advised shots. But some of the credit deserves to fall on the shoulders of the Jayhawks. They were the ones that made the steals when Teague threw a bad pass. They were the ones that played solid -- and well-prepared -- defense, helping to frustrate Kentucky's players into playing 1-on-1 basketball. And most importantly, they were the ones that capitalized on the Wildcat mistakes, jumping out to a 10-3 lead early and extending that lead to 21-14 at the under twelve timeout.

Kentucky made a push to get the game tied at the half, but Kansas could go into the locker room feeling pretty good about the 20 minutes that they had just played. The Jayhawks had held Kentucky to 38.5% shooting from the floor and forced 12 turnovers.

The second half was a different story.

"We had a lot of turnovers," Taylor said, "it was our mistakes, and they made us pay for it. One of the main things we wanted to focus on was taking care of the ball. There's different reasons that we didn't, but that's what cost us."

And while the loss hurt -- Taylor said after the game that he felt like his team had lost the championship -- its important that Kansas doesn't ignore the positives from this game. They hung with the most talented team in the country for 20 minutes and didn't quit after they dug themselves a 17-point second half hole. There are positives to take out of this game.

I know its weird to read, and even weirder to write, about moral victories when you're talking about Kansas, one of the top five programs in the history of the game, but its just one of those years for Kansas. The Jayhawks were crushed by early-entry after last season, with Josh Selby following the Morris Twins out the door and into the lockout. Kansas also lost starters Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed, valuable role players that could shoot and defend. Combine that with the swing-and-misses that Self has had on the recruiting trail over the last year or two and the fact that three of the Jayhawk recruits -- including Ben McLemore, the star of Self's 2011 class -- were ruled ineligible by the NCAA.

What does it all mean?

The Jayhawks have no bench. Their front court depth starts Kevin Young, a transfer from Loyola Marymount, who is actually playing behind Justin Wesley, a walk-on transfer from Lamar, where he averaged 1.2 ppg and 1.3 rpg. Connor Teahan, a former walk-on that finally earned a scholarship last year, played 23 minutes last night.

The guys that do play are all feeling their way through new and expanded roles. Taylor and Thomas Robinson are now the focal points of this offensive attack and expected to be in the running for all-league teams. Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Trevor Releford are all seeing their first significant minutes since they entered the program. All three are former top 50 recruits.

"This was definitely a learning experience for a young team like us," Taylor said. "We got a lot of young guys, guys that just haven't been in this position before, pressure situations like this. I think we can definitely watch tape and learn from this."

"It sucks to lose like this, but its a learning experience. We just gotta build."

Kansas still has plenty of chances to learn before they start Big 12 play. They kick off the Maui Invitational next week against Georgetown. The host Long Beach State, Ohio State and Davidson in September before heading out to LA to take on USC. There will be plenty of opportunities for this team to learn and plenty of room for them to grow.

"We're only two games in. We just got to keep working hard and I think we're going to be where we want to be pretty soon."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure that those games Kansas will be playing against Ohio State and the like will be in November and not September. However, this is an excellent column about a game that was more a learning experience than critical contest.