Head coach John Calipari, with his team 7-0 at the time, put the opening-season stretch behind him and told reporters that we would find out what his team was truly made of during the current three-game stretch with North Carolina, Connecticut and Indiana (Saturday at noon ET on CBS).
Two games into that critical run, UK is still undefeated (9-0) and quite possibly more confident than ever. But if this is the stretch where we really find out what UK is made of, what have we learned? I asked that question today to a pair of the players (Calipari pretty much answered it for us without asking) and here is what they had to say:
Freshman guard John Wall
"We found out we're a team that is willing to win. We're always going to fight, we're not going to give up, and that's a great thing to have. Our execution is not where it needs to be, though. The first half of the North Carolina game we came out with intensity and played well. In the second half, we let down like you've seen the other night against UConn. In the first half, we let down too and didn't play like we're supposed to, but the second half we came back out and fought. We've got to have that intensity for the whole game because when you get into league play and tournament time you're not going to be able to come out and play one half and think you're going to win games. You've got to play the whole game."
Sophomore guard Darnell Dodson
"I think this team has a real strong will to win and pull games out in late-game situations. Everybody does something at the end of the game to help us win, and I think that's a good thing."
"It's another thing for us to learn from and look at. We have some things we haven't done well. We get leads and then we try to make hero's plays. We are up 4-0 and we are chest bumping like we just won the national title, and then all of the sudden they come marching back because you turned it over, took a tough play, and stopped playing like it doesn't matter. All of the sudden, you're in a ball game. How many times have we done that this year? What's going to happen is it comes back to bite and you end up losing games. You say, 'If we had just sustained effort for another three minutes you would have put them away.' A lot of times, you have to lose a game or two in a row, or three to say, 'You know what, we better listen.' Right now, we've been fortunate and we've been getting by. We are what we are. We start off, we look really good, then we go do our own thing, and we don't pass the ball to each other, we make the hardest play we can make, we stop playing on defense, they get run out, and all of the sudden it's a ball game. It's who we are - a bunch of young guys that don't get it."
My five biggest lesson from the first third of the regular season:
1.) Mr. Wall is legit - A North Carolina assistant said after UK's win last weekend that the Cats will only go as far as Wall can take them. I believed coming into the season that Patrick Patterson would be that guy, but I'm starting to believe the UNC assistant. Patterson is still the go-to guy in terms of experience, leadership and inside buckets, but it's clear Wall is the most talented player on the team.
2.) Clutch Cats - Calipari calls it luck, but the more and more UK continues to pull it out late in games, the less I believe that. There's something to be said about a team that has been in four last-minute battles and has come out on top every time. With the ball in Wall's hands, there's a certain confidence and swagger the Cats have. It's like they know they're going to win. Believing is sometimes the difference between the good teams and the elite ones.
3.) Inexperience is good and bad - The lack of experience and minutes is sometimes troubling. Let's take DeMarcus Cousins: Sometimes he shows signs of dominance (the second half vs. UConn) and other times he looks frustrated and lost (the first half against UConn). But inexperience is sometimes an advantage. The Cats are almost ignorant to what they're doing. They don't get know how big of a deal it was to play in Madison Square Garden in front of that type of crowd. Some teams would let it affect them. They, on the other hand, seem oblivious to what's going on. And that's a great thing. When teams punch them in the mouth or come back, they don't falter or panic.
4.) Get Pat the ball - Patterson needs more touches. He's still producing, averaging 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, but Calipari would like those numbers to be around 20 and 12. And he's right. With a newly honed game, one that includes the ability to run the floor better and shoot the long-range shot, Patterson has the ability to take over games. He has in spurts this season, but we're yet to see it for a full 40 minutes. Sometimes he seems to get lost in the flow of the game. Part of the blame lies with his teammates, but Patterson also needs to become more assertive.
5.) Scratching the surface - Calipari's message this week has been that his team should be 4-5. While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, he is right in the sense that UK still has a long ways to go. At 9-0, they're only scratching the surface of their potential. The offense is still developing - Calipari is still learning how to mesh the dribble-drive with the bigs in the paint - the transition defense is shaky and the guards turn it over way too much. Still, if they're undefeated while they're learning, imagine how good they can be when they actually figure it out. That's why so many national pundits believe this team could cut down the nets in April.