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College Basketball Insider

Kentucky seems on its way to meeting preseason expectations

NASHVILLE -- The winner had been determined (though the final score still needed to be cemented) when Kentucky's Aaron Harrison found himself a few feet away from the basket, mostly alone and in possession of the ball with about 20 seconds remaining.

At that point, Harrison had two reasonable options.

  1. Pull the ball out and run the clock to all zeroes.
  2. Lay the ball in and extend UK's lead to double-digits.

Either of those would've been fine.

Instead, Harrison tossed an awkward lob to Alex Poythress.

UK coach John Calipari, baffled by the decision, quickly called a timeout.

"Are you out of your mind?" Calipari asked Harrison in the huddle, and, in fairness, that was a perfectly fair rhetorical question. "You take the points or pull it out."

Yes, you do.

But Harrison didn't.

So, obviously, these young Wildcats are still very much a work in progress; nobody is suggesting otherwise. Regardless, let the record show that the nation's preseason top-ranked team is on a four-game winning streak that's taken them to 12-3, and the issues they had in November and December seem to be diminishing with every 40 minutes of basketball.

Is Kentucky great right now?

No.

Could Kentucky win a 68-team tournament right now?

Probably not.

But Calipari's roster of McDonald's All-Americans is undeniably pointed in the correct direction, and the best way I can explain why is to revisit that silly lob in the final seconds of Saturday's 71-62 victory over Vanderbilt here at Memorial Gym. Again, that lob was equal parts senseless and ridiculous; don't ever forget that. But the lob was also an anomaly because UK's number of moments laced with inexperience -- Calipari calls them "AAU plays" -- are decreasing on the regular, which means projecting greatness for the Wildcats suddenly doesn't seem as silly as it did when they started the season by losing three of their first 11.

"The word is that we're not a good team -- [that] we have selfish guys," said sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds against Vanderbilt. "But the last couple days in practice we've been getting closer, basketball-wise, as a team."

Not just closer, though.

Also better.

Better in my eyes.

And, more important, better in Calipari's eyes.

"I like our progress," Calipari said. "We have the biggest upside of any team ... We do. ... [So I just have] to try to be patient ... [even though] I have no patience. ... There's a line between what you accept [as a coach] and building [your players] up. You can't start building them up if they're doing things that are unacceptable, and that was about a month ago. It was all unacceptable. But ... now ... they're playing. They're doing things that we want them to do."

That noticeably choppy answer to a question should not be interpreted as Calipari bragging because he wasn't bragging, and he certainly wasn't predicting his team will cut nets in April in Texas. All he was doing was highlighting that, finally, his players are properly responding to coaching, and that he's pleased with that because, as Calipari has learned over the past couple of years, it's a lot easier to enroll future lottery picks than it is to mold them quickly into a top-tier college basketball team. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as I wrote earlier this season, made that look a lot simpler than it is; we all know that now. So Calipari's goal isn't to have Kentucky looking like a challenger to Arizona or Syracuse in mid-January as much as it is to watch his Wildcats learn each day, improve with each game and get on a path that indicates they can achieve what so many predicted they'd achieve in the preseason.

Right now, Kentucky is checking those boxes.

Julius Randle is still a beast.

Cauley-Stein is still a lottery pick.

And the Harrison twins are getting more comfortable.

If you have eyes, you've noticed every bit of this already.

Sure, one of them might still throw an ill-advised lob in the final seconds because, well, who the hell knows why? But the good moments are starting to outnumber the bad moments, and that should be scary for the rest of the SEC (and country in general) because, as Calipari noted, unapologetically, this team still has more upside than any other team in the nation.

"Look, we're still not there. I'm telling you," Calipari said. "But I'm looking around the country, and I don't see anybody there. So this is all good. I like my team."


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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