Harris: Kentucky not used to life out of top 25
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Kentucky coach and Moon native John Calipari has only himself to blame.
His unranked Wildcats are struggling — in a manner of speaking — and it's all Calipari's fault because of his penchant for starting freshmen.
Mired with six losses in its first 18 games, Kentucky already has more setbacks than last season's 38-2 national championship team.
Two seasons ago, the Wildcats advanced to the national semifinals with a 29-9 record. The previous year, Kentucky finished 35-3, losing to West Virginia in the regional finals.
Each of those teams was dominated by freshmen. This team is no different — other than the early results, which haven't been up to the standard established by previous Calipari ballclubs.
“These guys are all freshmen. We are expecting them to be finished products. It's going to be another month before this team comes together,” Calipari said following a home loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 12.
Calipari has started at least three freshmen on each of his past four teams. It was expected that this year's newcomers featuring Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodman and Alex Poythress would pick up the slack left by Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Brandon Knight, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, but that hasn't been the case.
In Tuesday's 59-55 loss at Alabama, Kentucky led by as many as 11 points early. However, the Wildcats went scoreless over the final 3:34 of the first half and didn't score in the opening eight minutes of the second half.
Kentucky's three freshmen netted mixed results.
Nerlens, the most talented newcomer, nearly recorded a triple double with eight points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks. Goodman shot 2 of 12 from the field. Poythress fouled out in only 15 minutes.
“He's a freshman. He's playing like a freshman should. But he's at Kentucky — we're at warp speed here. We expect you to play like a junior,” Calipari said about Nerlens, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocker sporting a high-top fade, after the Texas A&M loss.
Calipari also experienced growing pains with his other freshman-dominated teams, but this is the first time since 2009-10 that Kentucky's name hasn't appeared in the top 25.
“You lose a game, you're disappointed,” Calipari said. “What happens as our team doesn't do well, each individual player starts questioning each guy. That's why they need to come together to stay together, keep working through it. I just hope we're winning enough games as we learn to do this.”
Kansas coach Bill Self was asked about the rash of low-scoring games that have become common early in the Big 12 season.
Kansas defeated Kansas State, 59-55, on Tuesday. The Jayhawks also upended Texas, 64-59, on Jan. 19. Other low-scoring Big 12 games in the first month of conference play: West Virginia 57, Texas 53; Baylor 51, TCU 44; Iowa State 63, TCU 50; Baylor 64, Oklahoma State 54; Kansas State 67, TCU 54.
“Scoring will go down from the nonconference averages, but don't look just at the Big 12,” Self said. “Look at Michigan, arguably the best offensive team in the country, (scoring) 50 points (in a 56-53 loss at Ohio State on Jan. 13). Arkansas-Vanderbilt was 21-11 at halftime (in a 56-33 Arkansas win Jan. 12). When you get into conference play, everybody ratchets it up defensively, and everybody slows it down just a little bit.”
Around the country
You thought Louisville had a bad week after being ranked No. 1. The Cardinals have lost their past three games and dropped to No. 5 — for now. Duke, which replaced Louisville at No. 1, promptly lost at Miami by 27 points — the third-largest margin of defeat for a top-ranked team. Others also have struggled. No sooner did Butler jump to No. 9, the Bulldogs were upset at La Salle on a last-second basket. It was the Explorers' first win over a top-10 team since 1980. Not to be outdone, Creighton has lost two straight since rising to No. 12. ... Marshall led, 3-0, then was outscored, 47-4, in a 102-46 defeat to Southern Mississippi. ... In a side note to Miami's 90-63 thrashing of Duke, the Hurricanes' 5-0 start is the best in their nine years in the ACC.
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.
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