There are no moral victories when it comes to Kentucky basketball. Not when you’re dealing with arguably the nation’s most storied program.
But if there was ever a time to walk away from a loss feeling encouraged, Tuesday’s loss in the Champions Classic to Kansas was that time. Did Kentucky play a perfect game? Absolutely not. Radio shows and message boards will spend the next 24 hours banging the drum about the 14-point second-half lead the Wildcats allowed to evaporate, execution on some key late-game possessions and John Calipari’s substitution patterns. But Kentucky also showed why Calipari has been outwardly optimistic about his young Wildcats team, even in the face of offseason adversity.
For a team that as late as early June had just seven scholarship players committed for next season to give the preseason No. 1 team (one starting three seniors and a junior, no less) everything it could handle was highly impressive. To do it despite its two most highly touted freshmen, D.J. Wagner and Justin Edwards, combining to shoot 1-of-18 from the field just adds to how strong the showing was.
There were moments Tuesday when Kentucky looked like a very real national title threat. Even with Wagner struggling, its guard play was electric. Fellow freshman Rob Dillingham’s four threes in a 121-second first-half explosion is among the most dynamic performances any player has produced in this event’s history. Another freshman, Reed Sheppard, had 13 points on just five shots and was a pest defensively with four steals. Sophomore Adou Thiero helped the Wildcats hang in on the glass and also contributed 16 points. And with a depleted frontcourt due to eligibility and injury issues, Tre Mitchell played 39 of the possible 40 minutes and wasn’t buried in foul trouble. The Wildcats weathered one storm in the second half after Kansas took the lead and likely would have held on if not for a late three-point barrage from Jayhawks point guard Dajuan Harris.
But the flaws of a young team largely playing its first big game did shine through at points. Kansas was on the ropes early in the second half trailing by 14, but went on a 21–4 run over the next five and a half minutes to surge ahead. Kentucky giving its guards as much freedom as they have meant some shaky moments during runs, and the Wildcat guards got a bit wild during that Kansas stretch. There were some early shot-clock heaves and a few sloppy turnovers that started transition opportunities, and Calipari likely kept Dillingham and Sheppard on the bench for too long as Wagner and Edwards struggled through their first big game. They seemed to tense up some once Kansas made the run everyone in the arena knew they’d make.
“I think that’s when [our] age came into everything,” Thiero said. “We started looking at each other, looking around, trying to figure everything out and we should have just kept having fun the whole game.”
Kentucky got good looks in the closing minutes when Kansas took the lead again, but senior Antonio Reeves couldn’t connect on three late threes that could have tied the game or given the Wildcats the lead. And in the decisive possession of the night, Kentucky was doomed from the jump. The initial look for a corner three blew up and turned into an off-balance heave by Sheppard with eight seconds to go. Given the criticisms of Calipari’s in-game coaching chops, that last possession will likely get a lot of attention. But all told, Kentucky’s young players generally handled the moment as well as they could have been asked to.
“None of us are happy that we lost the game,” Calipari said. “But to come in this environment with everything that goes with this, the bells and whistles, I couldn’t ask for much more.”
The hope is that this type of game is one Kentucky wins come February and March. Building with mostly freshmen in a sport that is increasingly opting for older, proven production over young talent could never have been expected to be the right recipe to win big games on Nov. 14. When scripting a March formula, having the type of firepower to be in position to win when two projected lottery picks shoot 6% from the field would be high on the list. Its guards as a whole look ahead of schedule, Thiero has emerged as a legitimate option at the four, and the Wildcats are still waiting on multiple 7-footers to rejoin their team and add size and depth to the frontcourt.
Calipari won’t say it, but this was a Kentucky team that felt ahead of schedule Tuesday night. It’s now the coach’s job to make sure this youthful group grows rather than stagnates. If it does, this team has the potential to break the program out of its recent March rut and get them back competing for championships. That much was obvious, even in defeat.