LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky is young and dumb. These are not the words of a sportswriter. These are the words of a college basketball coach. The coach at Kentucky.
"No team this young has ever played for a national championship," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Sunday, though he backed off that a minute later when he remembered the Fab Five of Michigan in 1992.
"We're going to do some dumb things," Calipari said, a statement he didn't back down from a minute later. No, he reinforced it.
He said, "Something happens, and we lose our minds."
He said, "Coach subs for you, and you lose your mind."
Calipari looks tired. He sounds drained. And he looks and sounds this way on a Sunday afternoon when his team has just beaten Florida 74-66 to win the SEC regular-season title by two full games. He looks and sounds this way because he knows the heavy lifting is still to come, and because he has a team that is talented enough to lift as much weight as any team in college basketball -- but a team that is young enough, and dumb enough, to drop the weight on its own foot.
Calipari didn't come to Kentucky to win an SEC championship. Not the tournament title later this week in Nashville, and not the regular-season title it has won for the 44th time in school history. So when he was asked Sunday to reflect on the regular season, Calipari made like a horse and pushed a big puff of air out of his mouth.
"Pbbbbbbbt," he said. "I'm just happy it's over."
This wasn't easy, going 29-2, but now comes the really hard part, the part of the season where teams like Kentucky are measured. The Wildcats have the spectacular talent to win the national championship, but they have the immaturity to fall spectacularly short. Calipari knows. And he's concerned by what he saw Sunday, when the Wildcats led by 18 in the first half but fooled around and allowed Florida to get within 62-60 in the final six minutes.
"I told them, 'Florida outworked us at certain positions,'" Calipari said.
Calipari didn't specify which position, but he didn't need to. If you watched the game, you know which ones. I watched the game, so I know. He was talking about center DeMarcus Cousins, who is a lottery pick in whichever NBA Draft he enters -- but who was outworked Sunday by a skinny Florida freshman named Erik Murphy. Murphy averages 3.3 points and 2.3 rebounds, but he had nine points and six rebounds in 17 minutes Sunday. Cousins averages 15.9 points and 10.1 rebounds, but he had eight points and nine rebounds in 22 minutes.
Slight statistical edge, Cousins. Enormous practical edge, Murphy.
"Murphy gave us great minutes," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We battled and competed in there as well as we could." All told, Florida outrebounded Kentucky 38-34, a statistic Calipari couldn't quite believe.
|John Calipari tries to hammer home the point -- Kentucky's players sometimes mentally check out. (US Presswire)|
That wasn't all Cousins' fault. Again, he did grab nine rebounds. And he played just 22 minutes. But none of the hungriest players on the floor played for Kentucky. They were all at Florida, like 5-foot-8 guard Erving Walker, who had eight rebounds, and 6-5 sophomore Ray Shipman, who was elbowed in the mouth in the second half and who walked to the bench to spit blood and possibly a tooth into a towel. And then he walked back toward the scorer's table. He wanted to play. All those guys at Florida wanted to play. Murphy. Alex Tyus. Walker. Shipman. Florida doesn't have excessive talent, but on Sunday, it had excessive heart.
Kentucky has excessive talent, and on Sunday, that was enough to lead by 18 and to win by eight. But it won't be enough as the competition gets harder. You could make an argument, rather easily, that Kentucky hasn't played a Final Four-caliber team yet. It's not from bad scheduling, but bad timing. Connecticut and Louisville have usually been better. North Carolina and Indiana have rarely been worse. The SEC doesn't have another team in the top 10.
When the test comes, as it will come two or three times in the NCAA Tournament, will Kentucky win because of all that talent? Or will Kentucky lose because of all that young-and-dumb?
Sunday, the talent of Kentucky was incredible. John Wall exploded to the rim for two easy baskets, he stepped back for a long jumper, and he drained the killer 3-pointer after Florida got within 62-60. Daniel Orton blocked four shots in 13 minutes. Darnell Dodson needed just three attempts from the field to score 10 points. Eric Bledsoe needed just five shots to score 14 points. Patrick Patterson scored inside and out and had four steals.
Also Sunday, the young-and-dumb was incredible. Bledsoe committed charging fouls on back-to-back lunges into the lane in the final 40 seconds of the first half, when Florida was making a game of it. Kentucky's shot blockers went after every shot they could, even on the help side, leaving Florida's big men to gather offensive rebounds and easy second-chance points. Cousins was completely taken out of the game, mentally, by Florida's physical play.
Calipari doesn't know quite what to make of his team. Not even now, after 31 games.
"I told our team," he said, "'We have to outwork other people. If we don't, we're going to be disappointed at some point.'"