They say if you play with fire enough times, you'll eventually get burned.
Kentucky has poked, prodded, and tampered with a losing flame four games running, including a 72-67 win over Auburn on Saturday.
But the Wildcats—one of only two undefeated teams remaining in Division I college basketball—have yet to receive more than a singe on their checkered waistbands.
And despite what Kentucky coach John Calipari says about his team's record, which in Calipari's mind sits somewhere around .500, the Wildcats are officially a perfect 18-0.
“We were fortunate,” Calipari said after nipping Auburn. “This team is a work in progress—the youngest team in the country.”
All 18 of those wins are thanks to the same players that sometimes keep contests closer than they need to be.
Starting freshmen DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and John Wall ranked as the Wildcats' three leading scorers against Auburn and joined junior Patrick Patterson as the only players to surpass 30 minutes of playing time.
Patterson said that although his teammates are inexperienced, they haven't learned enough in games where the Wildcats allowed Louisville, Georgia, and Florida to claw back into contention.
“They've been through it because this isn't the first time we've done it,” Patterson said. “They've definitely been through it. It's just a lack of doing the right thing.”
But with some of the nation's best young talent, inexperience sometimes shows—and it did plenty on Saturday.
Wall came through in the clutch as always, driving past four Tigers defenders to finish a layup that stretched Kentucky's lead to six. He then sealed a five-point Wildcats' victory with two free throws.
Caught somewhere in between Wall's usual highlight-reel performance were a glaring seven turnovers, as the freshman's greatest weakness revealed itself again.
Wall wasn't the only repeat offender. Cousins lost his headband along with his cool in the first half, taking a shot to the face—again. Officials sent Cousins to the bench for apparent blood, but the freshman did return to the game.
Capping off the youthful Kentucky starting lineup was Bledsoe, who scored 13 points but went 0-for-3 with three turnovers in the game's final 10 minutes.
Kentucky gave up a 19-point first-half lead to Auburn, and the Tigers tied the game at 60 apiece in the second half. Patterson—the Wildcats' veteran starter—said he knows why the big leads continue to dissipate.
“Coach definitely wants us to play for 40 minutes,” Patterson said. “We have a tendency to play 25, maybe 30.”
Calipari said he has a problem with a lack of effort, with Bledsoe citing his observations of “lackadaisical” play by the Wildcats in the second half of games this season.
That's the disadvantage of playing with ultra-talented youth—also the advantage in having some experience coming off the bench. Sophomore DeAndre Liggins provided just that, playing a bench-leading 14 minutes with no turnovers.
Liggins also added five points and was on the floor at the bitter end of Kentucky's hold on Auburn.
“It felt good,” Liggins said. “When my opportunity to play comes, I want to come in and do what I have to do to help us win.
“That's what I do—I bring energy off the bench.”
Liggins also brings a reality check to the freshmen prone to mistakes, according to Calipari.
“I was starting to tell them, 'when we get up, there's certain guys that I'm going to have to take out of the game. You're hurting us in those situations,” Calipari said.
The old guard of Darius Miller, Perry Stevenson, and Ramon Harris have thus far balanced out Kentucky's freshman mistakes, which are hard to condemn so long as the losing column remains empty.
And if a few mistakes come with 18 wins, so be it.
Calipari will let Wall, Cousins, and Bledsoe leap into the fire of Southeastern Conference play and hope they don't get burned in March.
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