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Youth aside, this UK team is pretty darn good again

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UK_Washington_11.23.10_BW_23.JPGFor all the reasons this Kentucky men's basketball team shouldn't be an early season elite team - namely youth, inexperience, a lack of depth and no Enes Kanter - there are countless more that's made this team 4-0 and placed it on the national radar.

Those reasons: heart, passion, grit, talent and even youth, to name a few.

Yes, John Calipari has told everyone time and time again that this team has a long ways to go. And to a degree, especially for it only being November, it does.

But let's face it: Calipari is one of the best marketers in the game. He can sell a Thanksgiving turkey to a vegetarian and yet downplay a diamond to a jeweler if it means making his team better.

After a frantic, hold-your-breath 74-67 win over No. 13/11 Washington on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the EA Sports Maui Invitational, not even Calipari can disguise how good this UK team is.

"For us, there's nothing better, especially with a young team, to shoot 39 percent, 17 percent from the foul line, have double the turnovers than assists and still win a game," Calipari said with some slight exaggerations. "It's lovely. We played how we had to play with foul trouble in the first half ... and guys fought like crazy.

"I thought we had some great individual performances, yet our team is not there yet. We got a little selfish today. Defensively, at the end, it was like layup, layup and foul. We left the huddle (saying) don't foul, (yet) we fouled. That's what happens with young guys. But what I did like is we made the four free throws we had to, to finish the game. Those balls went down, and that means we have a will to win, and it's beginning to happen."

Though the wintry months of December, January and February have yet to descend on us, this group dominatied of 18- and 19-year-olds is already learning how to battle adversity and win. There is no John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins on this squad, but this group has proven to be pretty special nonetheless.

"These guys were hooting and hollering and hugging (after the game)," Calipari said.

There was plenty for them to hoot about Tuesday night:

First, was how the team responded to a streaky first half. After the Cats gained early control with an 18-0 run, Washington fought back and took a one-point halftime lead on a 29-14 run.

As Brandon Knight and Darius Miller sat on the bench with two fouls apiece, seldom-used players like Stacey Poole, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson filled in and kept the Huskies within reach.

"The beginning of the game, we knew this was going to be two teams going at one another, and you could not back down," Calipari said. "If they push, you push back."

And that's what Calipari's team did in the second half. After Washington found some momentum to close the first half, UK gained control of the game with a relentless defensive approach and a workman-like effort on the boards.

Entering the game averaging 107.1 points per game and a plus-12.3 rebounding margin, Washington shot just 25-of-65 from the floor and got outrebounded 49-39. UK pulled down 19 offensive rebounds and scored 17 second-chance points.

"They outrebounded us and they were more disciplined than we were," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "I think in those two areas that made the difference in the outcome."

That's right, a Kentucky team dominated with youth out-hustled and out-smarted a veteran Washington team that some pundits have tabbed a potential Final Four sleeper. Kentucky's first-half flurry was so fast and so defensive-minded that a usually unshakeable Washington team looked flustered.

UK is supposed to still be learning, right?

Well, for as important as the youth was Tuesday night - Knight led all scorers with 24 points - a couple of Kentucky's veterans (Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins) pitched in with huge efforts.

Just weeks after finding himself in the Calipari doghouse, Harrellson scored nine points and pulled down 14 big rebounds, a career high. Calipari praised Harrellson after the game for his pick-and-roll defense, UK's supposed Achilles heel.

"Just playing 34 minutes and coming through for my team when they needed me most and just coming out with a victory, that's more (important) than 14 rebounds a game," Harrellson said.

As has become the norm, Liggins provided another stingy defensive effort, holding Washington star Isaiah Thomas to 13 points on 4-of-14 shooting.

Meanwhile, freshman forward Terrence Jones, the pregame centerpiece because of the recruiting battle between UK and UW, handled himself well with the eyes of the nation fixated on him. In a physical, emotional game against some of his former friends, Jones had 16 points and 17 rebounds.

"There were a bunch of big plays that he came up with, a bunch of second-half rebounds," Calipari said. "We were so depleted (in the first half) that we were just throwing him the ball. We just said throw it to Terrence, this is all we can do. We ran no offense. There was nothing because we had guys that didn't know the offense. We had guys that hadn't played this year out there."

Of course, Knight was the scoring hero against Washington. He routinely got in the paint for runners and hit 10-of-17 shots just a night after struggling against Oklahoma.

"It was important as far as confidence but the main thing was trying to do whatever it took to get a win today," Knight said.

And win Kentucky did in an NCAA Tournament-like atmosphere.

Are there reasons Kentucky shouldn't be playing this well right now? Well, sure. But maybe one of the biggest reasons - youth - is serving more than one purpose.

Maybe this team is just too naive to realize it's not supposed to gut out games like Tuesday's. Maybe the players are just too young to care about rankings and a raucous crowd.

Whatever the case is, youth and all, this Kentucky team is pretty darn good already.

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