Cat-nipped; Let's not judge this group of Kentucky Wildcats just yet

By Jeff Goodman | College Basketball Insider
John Calipari's team showed flashed but Duke had the age and tactical advantage Tuesday night. (Getty Images)

ATLANTA -- As Mason Plumlee walked off the court at the Georgia Dome with a huge grin following Duke's victory against this new batch of 'Cats, he was showered with one-liners from diehard Kentucky fans who had made the six or so-hour trek from Lexington. Some were shouting obscenities, others unleashing comments that held virtually no logic.

But one made perfect sense.

"You don't want to play us in March," one middle-aged UK fan shouted.

It's just the second game of the season and the Wildcats are 1-1. They almost lost to an unranked Maryland team in the season-opener and came up short against a mediocre Duke team -- at least by Coach K standards -- on Tuesday night in Atlanta.

It would be easy to proclaim this group a farce, a squad that has minimal -- if any -- opportunity to convene with three others in this building come April 6 for the Final Four. But that would be silly, since Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin were all playing in just their second collegiate games. Sure, we all understand -- and have known -- that this team won't measure up to the Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist group that tore through just about everyone last season en route to a national championship.

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Let's end those comparisons right now, but that doesn't mean this team can't repeat.

Goodwin was forced to play point guard in crunch time against a Duke team that featured a fifth-year senior and two true seniors in the starting lineup. He's not a point guard. Ryan Harrow is, but he was back in Lexington with what must be a pretty severe case of influenza.

"We're still trying to figure out our team," Kentucky coach John Calipari said following the 75-68 loss.

What is clear is that the ceiling is extremely high for Poythress, who finished with 20 points and eight boards. What's also evident is that Noel is one of the nation's top rim protectors and can score a bit more than people anticipated, with 16 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. It's also clear that Jarrod Polson is a nice, feel-good story, but he's not the answer and logged just a dozen minutes.

But it'll ultimately be Harrow that changes the complexion of this team, as long as he can return and be effective in running the team.

"We need him," Calipari said of Harrow. "It hurt us today. It's obvious, but I want him to be healthy."

I posed the question to Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski whether a team with Harrow would eventually alter the look and feel of this Kentucky team. He basically deferred even though he watched plenty of him as a freshman at N.C. State two years ago.

"I think Goodwin's going to be a star," Coach K answered instead. "He's an elite athlete and can break you down."

Goodwin is a two-guard, not a facilitator. Harrow is a point guard, someone who can push the ball, put opposing defenses on their heels and also has the ability to create easy opportunities (or at least easier ones than Goodwin creates) for his teammates. Will he be John Wall, Brandon Knight or even Marquis Teague? Probably not, but this year -- without a powerhouse team anywhere to be found -- Kentucky may just need a solid floor leader, not a spectacular one. Harrow did average 9.3 points and 3.3 assists a couple years ago at N.C. State and spent last season going up against Teague in practice every day.

But without a legitimate point guard, Kentucky was overmatched and it caught up with the Wildcats in the second half. Seth Curry, who has logged nearly 3,000 more college minutes than UK's freshmen, was the difference-maker in the final 20 minutes despite dealing with an injured leg. He buried 3-pointers, but more importantly, was able to get into the lane virtually whenever he wanted and use angles, floaters and shot-fakes to score 14 of his 23 after the break. Plumlee added 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting and Ryan Kelly chipped in with 10 points.

That's 51 points from a trio that has played more than 300 total games in the college ranks.

"We've got a lot to figure out," Calipari said. "They're freshman."

This isn't an overly intimidating Kentucky team right now, certainly not compared to the one a year ago that walked onto the court with an aura. That team didn't lose it's first game until Dec. 10, on a last-second shot from Indiana's Christian Watford in Bloomington, and wound up dropping just two all year long.

"They've won over 100 games in the last three years and they're national champs," Coach K said. "You know they're going to make a run."

Kentucky did just that, cutting what was a 14-point deficit midway through the second half to a one-possession game with less than two minutes left. But Duke's experience kicked in.

"We were composed," Curry said. "We've been in situations like that before."

Prior to the last five days, Noel's most important game may have been with his BABC summer team at the Peach Jam down in Augusta, S.C. This is new and while these guys don't deserve to be mentioned in the same breathe as the historic group that came through Lexington a year ago, it's far too early to pass judgment on the young 'Cats.

"If this is how we look in December and January, we're not going to be the team that everyone thinks," Calipari said.

Last I checked it's only Nov. 14.

 
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