It really is a shame that last summer the Southeastern Conference partnered up with ESPN to become the official home of SEC athletics, because since then the 10 p.m. time slot has opened up at NBC, and network executives are looking fill the void left by Jay Leno's “comedy” show with some drama.
Too bad it's through Kentucky basketball that NBC could have had guaranteed drama two nights a week.
The Wildcats have passed up every opportunity to put their major opponents down for good early in games, keeping a proverbial foot on Louisville, Georgia, and Florida's throats. Instead, three starting freshman—even player of the year candidate John Wall—have eased up on the throttle, running potential blowouts down to the wire.
The most recent case came Tuesday night against Florida, when Kentucky shot out to a 55-40 second-half lead. The Gators rallied and eventually tied the Wildcats at 72 with 5:13 to play.
Granted, Kentucky was able to again pull away from Florida and seal its 17th win of the season (and second on the road, and in SEC play), but down the road, coach John Calipari said he sees a Florida-type performance turning into a string of losses.
“At some point this season, we've got to get people down and keep them down, or you're going to be losing games, and you'll go on a run of not losing only one, but two, three, and four,” Calipari said.
As Kentucky saw its 15-point lead vanish at Florida's O'Dome Tuesday night, freshman guard Eric Bledsoe was in the midst of a career night. Bledsoe tallied 25 points to lead all scorers, yet on the defensive end he said he knew something wasn't right in the second half.
Bledsoe said Calipari noticed it, too.
“Once we get up, we always start playing lackadaisical,” Bledsoe said. “We're going to have to get that out of our system.”
Losing leads has been a recurring trend for the undefeated Wildcats, who carved their niche for tight games early in the season in games against North Carolina, Connecticut, and Indiana.
Kentucky nearly squandered a 19-point lead over the Tar Heels with freshman John Wall nursing cramps.
The Wildcats jumped out to a 12-0 lead against the Huskies in Madison Square Garden, only to end up tied at 16 five minutes later.
When Kentucky had Indiana pinned almost 10 points down, the Hoosiers stormed back to take a second-half lead.
Yet in every case, the Wildcats pieced together some big plays from some potent players and pulled it out.
Wall said it's just in Kentucky's makeup.
“We've just got the will to win, basically,” Wall said. “We're all mature. We know which guys are going to make plays in the end.”
The trend looked to have vanished—just like some early-season Kentucky leads—after the Wildcats knocked off Indiana, but in a three-game stretch that's included Louisville, Georgia, and Florida, close games have again become the norm.
Kentucky surrendered a 13-point lead over Louisville and an 11-point lead to Georgia, both of which were home games—both of which the Wildcats also managed to win.
But Calipari said he thought his team maintained a good mindset throughout all 40 minutes at Florida, insisting point guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, who combined turned the ball over just three times Tuesday, were just that good.
“The best thing is, (Kentucky) never played not to lose,” Calipari said. “I told them at the half, I said, 'Understand they're going to make about two or three more runs. They're a good team, they're well coached, they're going to have a gameplan of what they're doing. As they make their runs, just don't panic.'”
The Wildcats didn't, and a 72-all game turned into a blowout itself when the Gators' shooting went sour, despite Florida's best efforts.
And Kentucky dispatched another opponent that was out for blood, trying to hand one of the country's few undefeated college basketball team's an elusive first loss.
“That's what we like most about (being undefeated). We're going to get everybody's best,” Bledsoe said.
To hold its unblemished record, Calipari said the Wildcats need to play the way they did in response to Florida's run for 40 minutes a game—easier said than done with a first-year coach and three freshmen in the starting lineup.
“We make one run and win the game,” Calipari said. “That all happened in the last three or four minutes. We've just got to figure out how we can tap into that and say, 'this is who we have to be and how we play.' ”