Kentucky basketball’s reign as top-ranked unbeatable champions-in-waiting lasted about 90 seconds into Tuesday night’s loss against Michigan State. The No. 2 Spartans roared out to a 10-0 lead before Kentucky got its figurative sneakers tied and then held off a second-half comeback to hand the Wildcats a 78-74 defeat.
As painful as the early loss is for a team with Brobdingnagian expectations, there’s a lot the Wildcats can gain from Tuesday’s game. Indeed, this matchup provided a wonderful object lesson in why coaches like John Calipari benefit from scheduling tough non-conference foes.
Firstly, even with a loss, there’s very little penalty for the ‘Cats in the long run. In all probability, Kentucky is still going to be a No. 1 seed come March, so the only real casualty here is UK’s chance at an undefeated season (which, itself, might have become a distraction later on).
Secondly, playing an experienced, talented opponent like Michigan State shows Calipari exactly what his team needs to work on. Just as important, it shows the young players how far they have to go before they can live up to their preseason No. 1 ranking.
One major lesson for the ‘Cats from Tuesday night is the value of ball movement. Kentucky recorded assists on just eight of its 25 made field goals, while Michigan State assisted on 17 of its 30.
Good passing—led for the Spartans by a magnificent game from mercurial senior Keith Appling—leads to easier baskets. A few more of those for the Wildcats would take a lot of heat off Julius Randle, who’s been left trying to create all of Kentucky’s points by himself.
Passing also makes it tougher for the defense to stay in one place, as Michigan State did in packing the paint with its almost-zone approach. As the Wildcats’ guards get more accustomed to playing together, they’ll have an easier time finding the right pass to make in order to punish that kind of static defense.
They’ll also be able to shore up another weakness the Spartans feasted on: not learning from your mistakes. A huge chunk of Kentucky’s 17 turnovers came from trying to beat multiple defenders off the dribble, and Michigan State is just too tough defensively for that to work (even when the ball-handlers are as dangerous as the Harrison twins).
Calipari shouldn’t need to burn multiple early timeouts just to tell his team not to stick with something that obviously isn’t working. A couple of months from now, with help from object lessons like Tuesday night’s, he won’t need to.
There are also plenty of positives for Calipari to build on in the coming weeks, most importantly the fact that his young team didn’t roll over and die after Michigan State jumped out to that early lead. Even though the second-half comeback fell short, the fact that the Wildcats had the mental toughness to make it at all will make their job a little easier the next time they face a late deficit.
Then, too, the ‘Cats won the battle on the boards in decisive fashion, 44-32. That level of hustle (against a front line coached by the nation’s preeminent rebounding teacher, Tom Izzo) bodes very well for UK’s title hopes.
If Kentucky had won in what turned out to be a very close game, these same lessons would’ve been there, but it would’ve been awfully easy for the young Wildcats to ignore the negative parts. Now, they have no choice but to face up to the work that lies ahead if they’re going to follow through on their national-title potential.