Win or lose, Calipari said that he was going to get some answers from his team after this game. After a horrific start, Kentucky fought back on shoulders of Julius Randle to take Michigan State down to the wire. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Here are some lessons from Kentucky’s 78-74 loss to the Spartans:
1. Start slow and you’ll get burned
So far this season, Kentucky has developed a nasty habit of starting games slow, and tonight was no exception. Michigan State stormed out to a 10 point lead, spurring Cal to call two early timeouts to regroup; finally, at the fifteen-minute mark, James Young hit a three to give the Cats a bit of life. Young scored fifteen first half points, and at times, looked like the Cats’ only source of offense. After the game, Cal said that his team deserved to be down by 25 instead of ten at the start of the game. What was the problem? Transition defense was particularly terrible, as was the effort: “We’ve got guys right now that are thinking, one: okay, somebody else will go do it, or they’re not playing well and worrying about themselves.”
2. The Harrison Twins looked like freshmen
Young was the only freshman not to look like a freshman in the first half. Julius Randle and the Harrison Twins not only struggled, but looked shell-shocked by Michigan State’s quick start. While Randle got back on his feet in the second half to lead Kentucky’s comeback, the Harrison twins did not. Andrew finished with 11 points, three assists and five turnovers, while his twin Aaron only scored three points to go with one assist and two turnovers. More concerning than their stat lines was their body language, which looked at times defeated and annoyed. Calipari said after the game that he’s not worried about it, but in a game in which many expected the uber-competitive Twins to rise to the occasion, they got schooled by their older opponents. As you can see by his tweet above, Aaron Harrison was clearly upset with his play, which hopefully means he’s ready to listen and learn.
3. Too many turnovers
UK had 17 turnovers in tonight’s game, which is waaaay too many, especially when you consider that the majority of them were unforced. Several of those turnovers came at crucial times for Kentucky, squelching each comeback attempt in the second half. Julius Randle had an uncharacteristic eight turnovers, four in the first half. Doubled over by double teams, Julius’ problem was he held on to the ball too long at times, which led to easy points for Michigan State. While that is frustrating, the five turnovers from Andrew Harrison may have been even more brutal.
4. Free throw shooting must improve
If every single player isn’t in the Joe Craft Center practicing free throws the minute they get back to Lexington, then they need to get back on the bus. Kentucky’s free throw shooting was abysmal, with the Cats going 20-36 from the line. Cal said that told him his team didn’t deserve the W: “We missed 16 free throws, so we don’t deserve to win the game. …Getting to the foul line and missing is almost demoralizing.”
5. As Julius goes, this team goes
Julius Randle had a rough first half, but instead of coming out and sulking through the second half, he put the team on his back and almost led them to a win. Randle had 23 points in the second half, dominating the lane and making his case for the most impressive freshman so far this season (although Jabari Parker looks ridiculous so far against Kansas). After the game, Jay Bilas called him unstoppable:
“In the second half, he was phenomenal. You couldn’t stop him,” Bilas said after the game. “One on one, I’m not sure anyone can stop Julius Randle down on the post.”
During halftime, Calipari told his team “if you want to play in a game like this, let’s see what you got.” Julius Randle heard that call. He played so hard that he had to leave the postgame press conference because of cramps, and when he turned to leave, Cal told him “I told you to take yourself out.”
(One small thing, Julius: I think they’ve figured out the spin move.)
6. Digger Phillips is still an idiot
Randle is a pure competitor. He’s had three straight double-doubles (five if you count exhibition games), but still isn’t satisfied. After watching Julius put the team on his back and almost leading them to a win, how could you have nothing but respect for him? That’s a question someone really needs to ask Digger Phelps tonight. After the game, Digger approached Julius outside the locker room, put his hand on his shoulder, and yelled over to Rod Strickland, “Hey Rod, you gonna teach these guys how to make free throws?” According to Matt, it took Randle a huge amount of restraint to turn and head into the locker room without retort.
Listen to me, Digger: you’re an ass.
7. Alex Poythress is becoming a rock
Nine months ago, if I had written that headline, you all would have flogged me with sticks. However, Alex has flourished in the sixth man role, becoming the veteran presence this team so desperately needs. Alex had seven points and twelve rebounds, and Cal singled him out for his strong play after the game:
“He blocked shots, he rebounded the ball. You look at us now and he played pretty good.”
They eating they feet, Alex.
8. The will to win is there
Are there negatives from this game? Absolutely. Kentucky missed way too many free throws, committed too many turnovers, got burned in transition, and balked when the bright lights turned on. Yet, it is only November 12th, and as any coach will tell you, a loss speaks volumes. The silver lining? If you minimize the mistakes the Cats made tonight, the outcome would have been different. Despite their youth, this team showed they’ve got heart, coming back from a 12-point deficit at halftime to tie the game with four minutes left. Still, the loss hit some players so hard that Cal said there were tears in the locker room:
“You had guys crying in there, which is a good thing. That was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana (two years ago). So you had kids crying in there, and I want it to hurt like that.”
Were the players mourning the loss of 40-0? Maybe. But if that’s the price you have to pay for a reality check, then it’s totally worth it. On November 12th, battling back to take the #2 team in the country down to the wire doesn’t seem like a bad place to be.