Cats Clearly See Path ahead after Loss at UCLA

LOS ANGELES – Kentucky had just fallen to UCLA in a battle of the two programs with the most national championships in college basketball history.

The Wildcats – ranked No. 1 – trailed by double digits for all but 77 seconds of the second half, never really threatening the Bruins in front of a crowd that rushed the floor in celebration.

John Calipari’s assessment of the proceedings was succinct.

“Their coach out-coached our coach,” Calipari said. “Their guards out-hustled our guards to balls. They executed better than us. We got kicked and every once in a while this stuff happens.”

An accurate statement, to be sure, but “this stuff” simply hasn’t happened to UK often of late. The Cats (7-1) hadn’t lost a regular-season game in nearly 21 months and hadn’t lost in double digits once in that span before this 87-77 defeat to UCLA (5-3).

Perspective, in the wake of a defeat so contrary to recent history, can be difficult to find. Isaiah Briscoe, a mere freshman, has that covered.

“A loss, it happens,” Briscoe said. “It’s not like I wanted it to happen. Of course I wanted to win, but I don’t think we’re going to be judged off this loss. I think we’re going to be more judged about how we bounce back and how we continue to play from here on out.”

Briscoe is as competitive as anyone on UK’s roster – his 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting and tireless drives to the basket proved it – but he understands the Cats are playing the long game. The loose balls they couldn’t come up with in a tough road environment, they’ll have plenty of chances to make them when they really count. The same goes for the defensive stands they couldn’t make and the rebounds they couldn’t grab.

“I think taking one early is going to help this team because sometimes we come out not playing too hard and guys are going to understand we can lose,” Tyler Ulis said. “Nobody wants to have this feeling again so I feel like we’re going to come out better.”

Ulis has now only had that feeling twice in his college career, and he certainly did everything in his power to avoid it. After sustaining a hyperextended elbow just six days ago, Ulis played through pain to tally nine points and a career-high nine assists.

Clearly, Ulis had an understanding of Coach Cal’s “everybody’s Super Bowl” refrain about the way opponents play Kentucky.

“Look, would you say this is the best (UCLA) played?” Calipari said. “OK, every game we play, it’s the best that they play, whoever the team is. …We’re playing Eastern Kentucky (on Wednesday); they will play the greatest game in the history of games because they’re playing us. We have to understand: They play tougher, they play rougher, they play more focused. That’s what it is. Playing at Kentucky, that’s what you get.”

For his part, Briscoe gets it.

“This is what we signed up for,” he said. “This is no surprise to me. I knew coming into Kentucky that it was going to be this way.”

Some of his teammates aren’t quite there yet, but Calipari – and Ulis for that matter – will make sure they make it.

“It just will come down to, are we going to be tougher than the people we’re playing?” Calipari said. “And if you don’t understand that, you gotta figure it out.”

That’s what Ulis said when he approached Skal Labissiere in a second-half huddle.

The talented freshman forward was a relative nonfactor on Thursday night, managing only six points and one rebound. The play that caught Ulis’ attention was a loose-ball rebound Labissiere couldn’t come up with, and the sophomore point guard appeared on the ESPN broadcast taking Labissiere to task for the play.

“Whatever I did, I was just trying to be hard on him, make him get the rebound,” Ulis said. “But at the same time, I told him, ‘You good. It’s OK. We still need you to play in this game.’ I’m just trying to lead him. He’s going to get there. He’s young. Like I said, it’s early in the season. We need him.”

Calipari echoed Ulis, both aware of the challenge ahead for Labissiere and confident in his ability to meet it.

“Gotta do it,” Calipari said. “Got no options. Gotta get lower, gotta use leverage, can’t try to use your arms and hands. When they came at you and you go down (with your hands), that’s a foul now. Can’t do it. He’s going to be fine.”

Labissiere, in many ways, is a microcosm of his team. He possesses unmatched talent, but lacks experience. He has all the potential in the world, but not the approach it will take to reach it.

Not yet.

“This is the growing pains of trying to coach the most inexperienced team in the country,” Calipari said. “But I’m fine with it. We got beat, we got kicked, we move on. We’ve had a pretty good run and now see if we can get it going again.”