Tuesday, April 8, 2014
Home Court: Year of the Freshman ends
By Eamonn Brennan
ARLINGTON, Texas -- You could see it from the start. You didn't even have to look that hard.
It was Kentucky's third game of the season, its first against serious competition, and the Wildcats looked lost. Its transition defense was nonexistent. Its offensive sets were a jumbled mess. Its opponent, Michigan State, had taken to Nov. 12's United Center stage with veteran aplomb: The Spartans were defending in sweeping collective movements, pushing forward with fluidity and pace. The Wildcats entered the game ranked No. 1 in the country, wielding the best recruiting class in modern college hoops history, with nothing less than a perfect 40-0 season on the lips of its fans. Instead, John Calipari's team looked like what it was: A bunch of self-aware kids very publicly feeling each other out.
And it almost didn't matter. In exactly three minutes and 27 seconds, Kentucky exploded a 13-point second-half deficit into a one-point Michigan State lead. With five minutes left, Julius Randle, who finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds on 13 field goals shots and 15 free throw attempts, tied the game at 66-all. Tom Izzo's team, the more cohesive and polished group in every visible way, found itself holding on for dear life.
The Spartans' grip held. Gary Harris and Keith Appling made two huge back-to-back buckets, and late free throws sealed the win. The final result obscured nothing; you could see it all then. Even in a larval state, the youngest, most freshman-packed team in the country was a primal force of nature.
In the same gym two hours later, Andrew Wiggins would dunk Kansas past the gorgeous scoring of Duke's Jabari Parker. Everything we had been breathlessly told about both players was true. Kentucky's promise had already lived up to its hype. One week in to the 2013-14 season, there was no other conclusion to draw.