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January 14, 2013
Struggling Kentucky faces Tennessee at Rupp Arena
There are freshmen and there are Kentucky's freshmen.
The regular ones probably can average 13.4 points and 6.3 rebounds and satisfy some coaches and fans. Alex Poythress is doing that at UK and everybody's asking for more.
And maybe elsewhere, a freshman-dominated team can start 10-5 without much panic button pushing.
"But we're at Kentucky," Wildcats coach John Calipari said Monday. "This is warp speed."
With a veteran team, Calipari said, he'd ask Poythress "just try to play a little harder." And he'd give players a little time to develop before he asked them to compete with upperclassmen.
But Calipari hasn't been one for veteran teams at Kentucky. And this season more than any other during his four-year UK tenure, the Wildcats' youth is showing.
As UK (10-5, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) prepares to host Tennessee (8-6, 0-2) Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, Cats fans are experiencing the down side of the win-with-youth formula.
Kentucky's five losses are the most it's had through 15 games since 2007-08, when Billy Gillispie was the head coach. The Wildcats had no home losses and one double-digit loss in Calipari's first three seasons combined. Already this season they have two of each, including last Saturday's 83-71 home court loss to Texas A&M.
"No one here to mimic," Calipari said of the difference between this team and his first three. "There's no one here to imitate."
Calipari's first three teams had more veteran contributors, players like Patrick Patterson, DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Darius Miller who had been through the experience of playing at Kentucky, of facing SEC foes at home and on the road.
The lack of leaders to emulate means that more often than in recent years, Kentucky is playing like the young team it is.
"Just like the gambling and stuff on defense," freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Not getting like key rebounds, those little mistakes you have that you don't have when you're a junior or senior.
"How sped up the process is for us freshmen and sophomores that are playing, they make us where we have to play like a junior or senior. We just don't…We haven't bought into the system yet."
"Buy in" was a catch phrase around the program on Monday. Calipari referred repeatedly to "the process" of having a team come together and trust one another and said that the Cats aren't there yet.
"The only thing that brings about a change is crisis," Calipari said. "I'm hoping it's (the loss to) Texas A&M, but it may not be. We may need to get hit on the chin three or four more times before they look at each other and say, 'It's not working this way.'"
Despite their early struggles, the Volunteers are good enough to give UK one of those shots to the chin, Calipari said. Tennessee has experience - juniors Jordan McRae and Trae Golden and seniors Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee are among the top six players in the Vols' rotation - and some solid talent.
On paper, Kentucky is better.
But the Wildcats haven't clicked on the court. Calipari has lamented his team's inability to stop long scoring runs by opponents, evidenced by the 16-1 run Texas A&M used to rally from a four-point deficit last Saturday.
And UK appears to be struggling with the speed of the learning curve. With four freshmen - Poythress, Cauley-Stein, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel - and sophomore Ryan Harrow in the starting lineup, Kentucky is among the nation's youngest teams.
At Kentucky, that's not an excuse for a slow start. In his first three seasons, Calipari won 102 games with freshman-dominated teams, sending eight freshmen to the NBA after the played a single season at UK.
"I think it's harder here because you're supposed to get here and get out of here," Harrow said, alluding to the expectation that UK players are good enough to be one-and-dones. "Basically that's what it is. But maybe that's not what it is for this group. And we have to accept that and keep playing as hard as we can."
That's not all they have to accept.
Calipari said it's crucial that his team understands that the status quo isn't working. The Cats have to want to change, he said.
"Now if there is a change, my vision is, there's no one late in this season (who) is going to want to play this team," Calipari said. "If we get it right. But right now it appears everybody wants to play this team."