Young Kentucky's Growing Pains, Potential on Display in Loss to Michigan State

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 13, 2013

Before we even had a chance to blink, top-ranked Kentucky had committed four turnovers, used two timeouts and dug itself a 10-0 hole in the eventual 78-74 loss to Michigan State Tuesday night.

Talk about having nowhere to go but up.

Days before the Champions Classic, John Calipari lamented to Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader, "It's not fair when we walk in and everybody else is more experienced."

The youth and inexperience of his freshmen was blatantly on display early in Chicago.

The No. 2 Spartans completely shut down Kentucky's dribble-drive motion offense. For the majority of the first half, it looked more like Kentucky's game plan was to dribble at the free-throw line and hope to get bailed out by a foul before committing a turnover.

It was about as effective as it sounds.

With five minutes left in the first half, Michigan State held a 31-17 lead. Julius Randle was 0-of-2 from the floor with four turnovers and looked to be completely overmatched in the paint by Adreian Payne. Tom Izzo's transition offense was leaving Kentucky in the dust time and again.

For those first 15 minutes of the game, Michigan State was clearly the more experienced team. At times, it felt like the Spartans could have won the game by 40 if they really wanted it.

But then, out of seemingly nowhere, things started to click for the Wildcats. Just as quickly as we started to doubt them in the first half, it became clear just how dominant they will likely become.

Randle scored 25 of his 27 points in the final 25 minutes of the game, pretty much single-handedly bringing Kentucky back to tie the game at 66and putting Michigan State's entire roster in foul trouble in the process. Despite facing frequent double-teams and triple-teams, Randle hit eight of his nine shots from the field in the second half.

Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison finally starting getting some penetration on their drives, opening up the lane for Randle and creating opportunities for kickouts to James Young along the perimeter. Long story short, the Wildcats ran an actual offense as opposed to the adaptation of street ball that they seemed to be running in the first half.

Kentucky improved considerably on the defensive end of the floor as well.

After combining for 27 points in the first half, Payne and Gary Harris became complete non-entities, combining to score one point and commit four fouls in the first 12 minutes of the second half. The fast-break buckets were fewer and further between for Michigan State, as Kentucky more regularly got back on defense.

The Wildcats looked like a bunch of undisciplined youngsters in the first half, but then started to look worthy of the preseason No. 1 ranking while mounting a furious comeback.

Thus is the Jekyll and Hyde nature of a team that had five freshmen on the court at various points throughout the night.

When they're firing on all cylinders, there won't be a better team in the country. But there are going to be occasional growing pains. The Harrison twins will have nights like these with more turnovers (six) than made field goals (four). James Young will have nights where the three-pointers just don't seem to fall. Even Randle will struggle once in a blue moon.

The scary thing about this team is that they looked hopelessly lost for nearly an entire half against what will be the No. 1 team in the nation next Mondayassuming the Spartans don't lose Friday's home game against Columbiaand they still darn near won the game.

It's possible this loss might be the spark that Kentucky needed to dominate the rest of the season.

''You got guys crying in there, which is a good thing,'' Calipari said after the game, per the Associated Press. ''I want it to hurt like that. I knew this would get their attention. The biggest thing is if you don't do this together, you won't win. You'll never be a special team.''

The Wildcats can throw that 40-0 distraction out the window and just build toward the all-important 6-0 record in the NCAA tournament.

Once the Wildcats break this early habit of getting out to slow startspresumably by relying more heavily on Randle from the outsetthey should become the team to beat again in no time.

Then again, many analysts made a similar argument after the loss to Duke in the 2012 Champions Classic. On behalf of Big Blue Nation, here's hoping Sunday's game against Robert Morris will be start of a special run.


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