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Prominent win cements UK's return to national stage

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Welcome back, UK basketball. You've been missed.  

When the school hired John Calipari more than eight months ago, tremors shook the college basketball world. When Calipari hauled in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, opposing coaches let out a collective "Uh oh." And when UK started the preseason ranked in the top five, it appeared the country's all-time winningest program was back for good.

This proves it. Kentucky's 68-66 win on Saturday qualified what teams across the country have feared for months: The Cats are every bit as good as their recruiting stars and rankings indicate. Their talent might be unmatched.

Contrary to what head coach John Calipari says, UK is now firmly back among the nation's elite, and not a moment too late with win No. 2,000 now on the horizon.

"We're not back. We're not very good," Calipari said. "We had 21 turnovers, and there were times late in the game you had to say, 'Why did he do that?' because that's what exactly what I was saying. We walked out of three timeouts, folks, and guys were looking like, 'What are we running?' "

"All that stuff - to be more focused in timeouts, to do it in practice, understanding this is about a team, not you - we've got all that stuff to cure."

patterson uk_unc.jpgAll that "stuff" and yet UK walks away with really its first signature win since toppling No. 8 Tennessee two seasons ago in Lexington. UK showed 24,468 record-setting fans and the eyes of the nation that talent sometimes trumps inexperience and mistakes.

The fact that UK could overcome what Calipari has maintained is a work-in-progress might be more telling of this team than anything.

"There are a lot of people out there saying we're a young and immature team," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "People were saying we were going to lose this game and we can't do this and we can't do that. ... Hopefully that will change the perspective on us. Hopefully they'll think we're a tough team and a force to be reckoned with."

Consider North Carolina coach Roy Williams a believer.

After a 9-2 UNC lead to open the game, Kentucky nearly ran the Tar Heels back to Chapel Hill, N.C. Freshman guard John Wall, playing against his hometown team, grabbed a miss from Marcus Ginyard and raced the length of the floor for a two-hand slam.

He didn't stop running until cramps slowed him in the second half.

Behind Wall's blink-of-the-eye transition baskets and five first-half assists, Kentucky went on an almost surreal 28-2 run. For all the talk about UK's inexperience and lack of big-game situations, Wall was ready to rise to the occasion.

"In the first they really kicked our tails," Williams said. "They just ran us out of the gym."
It's hard to tell how well the Dribble Drive Motion Offense is really working. With big men DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Patterson inside, the Cats have been forced to alter their attack just a bit. In the same breath, Calipari will tell you they still have "a long ways to go."

Who knows? If we could live inside Calipari's head, maybe we'd have a better picture.

But from what we know and what we can see, Calipari appeared to execute a perfect game plan in the first half. With Ed Davis and Deon Thompson inside, North Carolina had enough muscle in the paint to push a two-ton truck.

So Calipari adjusted. He emphasized defense (UNC shot 38.8 percent from the field) and turnovers (21 Tar Heel mishaps), and more than anything, he pushed his players in transition after a forced miss or turnover.

A leaner Patterson ran, a more aggressive Darius Miller got down the court and shot open treys, and Wall popped out assists like a Pez dispenser.

"I don't know that I've ever coached a team that at halftime the other team scored 12 fast-break points and we had zero," Williams said.

A steady, workman-like second half effort from UNC chipped away at the Kentucky lead when Wall went out with cramps, but clutch plays - most notably 3-of-4 free throws from Eric Bledsoe - sealed the deal.

Bledsoe, to that point, had done very little, but he kept his head up and grinded out the type of wins great teams come away with. In games like Saturday's, style points don't matter.

"It doesn't matter how you play," Calipari said. "I'm trying to teach the whole team that. ... It doesn't matter if you've played awful. At the end of the day we're trying to win."

And they're becoming extremely successful at doing it. In jumping out to an 8-0 start, UK is off to its best opening-season mark since an 11-0 run to begin the 1992-93 campaign.

Ugly, pretty, flashy or the quote unquote "long way to go," performances, it doesn't matter anymore. In a program where priority No. 1 is winning, Kentucky appears to be back on track.

Because really, all those preseason rankings, magazine covers and talk of a return don't mean anything until you beat the big boys. Sure, Kentucky had some Cancun Challenge hardware in its trophy cast and won some games at the end with some clutch late-game plays, but without the prominent names like Carolina in the win column, it lacked substance.

Consider Saturday proof of the grand return. 

"I like our will to win," Calipari said. "We have a will to win. They believe they're going to make something happen and they'll win the game."

It's a belief the Cats used to sweat. UK used to walk in opposing teams' gyms and the other players' knees would wobble. The kids call it swagger these days. I call it confidence.

Whatever term you choose to use, I think they've got it back.

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1 Comment

Great read. John Wall = PEZ dispenser, LOL!

It feels so good to be back. And the best thing is, we still have a long way to go. Fear our future, indeed. :)

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  • AJ: Great read. John Wall = PEZ dispenser, LOL! It feels so good to be back. And the best thing is, read more