No surprise in Kentucky loss to Irish
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- This is what's supposed to happen.
When a team this young goes on the road for the first time, it is supposed to lose.
When it's late November, and your group of freshmen and sophomores haven't played in a hostile environment, and said hostile environment happens to be a packed, blackout-clad Joyce Center, where Notre Dame never loses in nonconference play, you are supposed to lose.
When ND's football-obsessed fans are juiced off that team's 12-0 national-title run, and that school's Heisman candidate is sitting in the front row of the student section -- and, oh by the way, you are also playing a very good team with a very real chance of winning the Big East -- you are not supposed to play winning basketball.
You are supposed to lose.
That Notre Dame's 64-50 thrashing of Kentucky might be considered an upset is less a statement about Mike Brey's efficient Notre Dame team than a credit to John Calipari's remarkable tenure at Kentucky thus far. But not every season can be 2012, when a once-in-a-generation talent is surrounded by enough selfless future pros that the whole thing looks routine.
It is not routine. It's the exact opposite of that. And this young UK bunch is already offering up proof.
"I expected that we wouldn't play well," Calipari said. "I'm disappointed that we didn't compete."
Last season, Kentucky's first big road test came at a packed Assembly Hall, but that team was good enough to all but win, losing only after that now-famous last-second Christian Watford 3-pointer.
This Irish team may not be Indiana, but it is everything the Wildcats are not. Where Kentucky is young, long and projected to go pro, Notre Dame is led by nondescript veterans such as (one-time video game aficionado turned rebound machine) Jack Cooley and forward Scott Martin, who was, believe it or not, recruited in the same 2007 Purdue class as Robbie Hummel.
Neither player will be projected to go in the first round of this summer's NBA draft, if they are projected to be drafted at all. At one point in the first half, while guarding Martin, 7-foot UK forward Willie Cauley-Stein practically unfurled his arms in a defensive stance. It almost looked silly.
But both Martin and Cooley put on a clinic in how low-post position and physical defense can negate athletic disadvantages. They combined for 15 rebounds (11 of which were Cooley's) and a 35 percent offensive rebounding rate, while holding freshman phenom Nerlens Noel, a projected top-five pick, to just 10 points on 10 shots.
On the other end of the court, junior point guard Eric Atkins was confidently running Notre Dame's typically stable offensive show. Atkins finished with 16 points on 7-of-11 from the field, while he and guard Jerian Grant offered the young Wildcats some pointers on the finer workings of the high screen and roll.
After the first five minutes, when Kentucky looked as if it might turn the game into a sheer foot race, the Irish took away everything the Wildcats wanted to do. The defense slid in front of Goodwin and closed out on Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays. Shots didn't fall; ill-advised drives careened wildly off the backboard.
And that loud, blacked-out Notre Dame crowd -- with South Bend BMOC of the decade Manti Te'o screaming his head off in the Irish student section -- kept the intensity high.
Was Kentucky intimidated?
"We possibly were," Mays said.
In other words: Yes.
"I've had teams in that situation -- though never that young -- and it can make you play a little fast sometimes if you're young," Brey said. "It can rattle you a little bit, and I think it did that."
In all, the Wildcats shot 19-of-47 from the field, and just 4-of-14 from beyond the arc. Star guard Archie Goodwin finished 1-of-7 from the field, and forward Alex Poythress, who missed most of the first half due to foul trouble, had more turnovers (three) than field goals (one) and free throws (one) combined.
There were a few don't-call-them-lucky breaks for the Irish -- Grant hit a couple of hugely contested 3-pointers, and Brey got a really confident contribution from a freshman of his own, promising wingman Cameron Biedscheid -- but once the Irish took control of the game in the first half, and the crowd got ramped up, the Wildcats never looked threatening again.
"Tonight was a big night," Atkins said. "We were ready all summer, just talking about this game and getting up for this game. It doesn't surprise me, the energy we brought tonight."
Nor should the outcome. For as easy as Calipari's 2012 season made his formula look -- recruit, motivate, coalesce, rinse, repeat -- it is obviously not that simple. For all of the reasons critics wanted to say Calipari couldn't win that way (few of which had a relationship with reality), at least one was real: Veterans are important to college basketball programs. And while it is one thing to bring on a new star or two every season, it is another to send your top six players to the draft and expect to compete for a national title 12 months later.
"It's tough to coach new teams each year, that's what is hard," Calipari said. "That's just part of what we have to deal with. Every team is new."
He's right, of course, and that sound you hear is the world's tiniest violin playing just for defending national champion Calipari. He choose this path -- to use the one-and-done rule to his advantage if at all possible -- and while it can work out for the best (as in 2012, or, as many assume, with another historic class in 2013-14) these are the risks that come along with it.
Sometimes, your chosen point guard (the flat-top-shorn Ryan Harrow, who played all of nine minutes and scored two points) misses a week out of nowhere, first with the "flu" and then with "personal issues." Sometimes, your potential No. 1-overall pick center really is just a raw shot-blocker, and not a fully formed former guard morphed into an unfair athletic freak.
Sometimes, your young wingman gets into foul trouble. Sometimes, your putative shooting guard has to play point. Sometimes, you get schooled by a bunch of guys who have been doing this college basketball thing every day for a few years. Sometimes, you go on the road in a red-hot environment and those kids just do not stop yelling, and sometimes you just don't play very well at all.
These young Wildcats will get better, rest assured, most likely starting with Saturday's home date against a talented but struggling Baylor team. If Calipari was looking for a teachable moment to help bring his team together, look no further.
And after Notre Dame takes a deep breath from one of the best sports weeks in school history, the Irish will keep doing their thing, looking unimpressive in the layup line eye test but outrebounding and outscoring opponents most every night anyway.
"I'm glad we played [UK] now, because they're really talented and they're going to be better in January and February," Brey said. "But I was very confident about our group. It was interesting to hear people around the country, though. We didn't look at this as an upset."
Nor should he.
That's what was supposed to happen.
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