LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari isn’t surprised that his highly-touted freshmen have played like the teenagers they are during the season’s first month.
As a result, the coach noted that his third-ranked Wildcats must grow up quickly against challenging opponents filling their December schedule.
Kentucky (6-1) faces Providence (6-1) Sunday night in Brooklyn, N.Y., starting a month followed by matchups with No. 18 Baylor — which beat the Wildcats here last season — Boise State, No. 16 North Carolina, Belmont and defending champion and in-state rival Louisville, ranked ninth.
“The reality of it is we are what we are, a bunch of freshmen,” Calipari said Friday. “I’m trying to figure them out, they’re trying to figure each other out. We’re still not locked into how we’re going to play.
“The problem is, I go watch tape and then I’ve got 17 more thoughts in my mind that I want to give to them and they don’t have the seven thoughts that I’ve taught them right now.”
Despite high expectations of winning a national championship and talk of going unbeaten before a 78-74 loss to No. 2 Michigan State in Kentucky’s third game, Calipari has continually pointed out that his eight-man freshman class including six high school All-Americans is a “long way” from being a dominant team.
The Wildcats are learning how to play zone defense. They have spent recent practices working on basic defensive fundamentals, especially with hand-checking rules being enforced more strictly this season.
Calipari’s main point of emphasis has been playing through entire defensive possessions instead of standing and waiting for rebounds, a message that freshman 7-footer Dakari Johnson said is steadily getting through.
“We’re still learning that aspect of it, just to keep on playing hard,” Johnson said. “We’re progressing each and every day.”
Kentucky is also learning how to score against zone defenses. Because of their inability to break down zones, the Wildcats are shooting more 3-pointers than Calipari would like.
The growing pains have been evident.
The Wildcats started slowly against Cleveland State and Eastern Michigan this week. Their flat play for 33 minutes Monday against the Vikings had them headed for a second loss before they awakened with a 24-7 run over the final 7:41 to wipe out a 10-point deficit and escape with a 68-61 victory.
Calipari praised his team’s will to win the game against Cleveland State and seemed generally pleased with the Wildcats’ progress in Wednesday’s 81-63 victory over the Eagles. Still, the Wildcats trailed early and led by just three at halftime before pulling away in the second half.
“I just think they’re so young,” Calipari said about his team’s slow starts. “We’re out there with five freshmen. I can’t get caught up in winning and losing right now, and I am because I want to win every game. But what it’s causing me to do is try to make these guys better than they are at this stage.”
Calipari said these young Wildcats are playing better together at this point of the season than last year’s team, which lost three of its first seven games,
More players are starting to have an impact and contribute as opponents double- and triple-team forward Julius Randle, Kentucky’s leading scorer averaging 19 points, and13.3 rebounds per game.
Swingman Aaron Harrison was the Wildcats’ leading scorer in wins over Robert Morris and EMU. Guard James Young hit five 3-ponters in a 26 point-performance in a win over UT Arlington.
Andrew Harrison is becoming increasingly more comfortable at point guard and demonstrated his leadership in the comeback over Cleveland State with a couple of critical three-point plays and a several big assists.
Kentucky also is using its’ athleticism to take advantage of the hand-checking rules to get to the foul line. The Wildcats have made nearly a hundred more free throws than their opponents.
Still, these are baby steps for a team with goals of winning a national title.
The Wildcats will need to show a lot more improvement to keep winning in December with hungry opponents such as Belmont, which upset a Tar Heels team that beat Louisville on Sunday. But Kentucky’s First challenge will be the Friars.
“We don’t know much about them,” said Johnson, a Brooklyn native. “We’re just now watching film on them, but we know they’re a good team.
“Coach Cal told us they’re going to be one of the better teams we’ve played thus far, so I’m just real excited to go back home and get to play a good team.”