John Calipari's system of corralling the best high school talent and molding it into a championship-level college team was put to the test Friday night against a more experienced Baylor team. In a 67-62 loss at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Kentucky learned that for all the future lottery picks that litter its roster, there are plenty of kinks to be straightened out before the Wildcats can knock off the best squads the college level has to offer.
The Wildcats' lack of concentration was exposed throughout the game. Kentucky struggled to defend Baylor's ball screens, giving junior college transfer Kenny Chery space at the top of the key, where the junior adeptly picked his spots with long jump shots and high floaters. On the rare occasion that another defender switched on to Chery on a pick-and-roll, missed assignments elsewhere on the floor allowed Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin to break to the rim untouched. Perhaps the most telling defensive possession for the Wildcats was the shot that sealed the win for Baylor. With less than a minute remaining, star forward Julius Randle inexplicably sagged off of Chery, allowing the junior to hit an open midrange jumper to give the Bears a four-point lead.
Despite winning the turnover battle, Kentucky didn't generate a single steal, and it wasn't just Baylor's offensive sets that confused the Wildcats. Kentucky also struggled heavily on the defensive glass, allowing the Bears to rebound a staggering 54.5 percent of their misses. That number has been topped by only two Wildcat opponents in Calipari's five seasons in Lexington (not surprisingly, Kentucky lost those meetings too). Rico Gathers was terrific for Baylor down low, and five of his 13 boards were of the offensive variety. The porous effort allowed Scott Drew's team to retake the lead after Kentucky pulled ahead. Kentucky also had its share of problems on the offensive end in the second half after busting Baylor's defense with six threes before halftime.
In the second stanza, Baylor's zone shape-shifted between 1-3-1 and traditional 2-3 looks. Possession after possession, the Wildcats tried to dump the ball to Randle and center Willie Cauley-Stein, but as talented as they were, they struggled to get to the hoop with consistency as Baylor predictably collapsed on the big men and Kentucky's bigs couldn't get the ball back out to the perimeter in time. While there's still plenty of time for Kentucky to work through its challenges, Calipari's team is firmly behind fellow championship contenders Arizona, Michigan State, Kansas and Syracuse in the quality win department. Despite opportunities against the Spartans and Baylor, the Wildcats have yet to cash in, as their best victory over the season is against the Providence Friars, a middling team from the depleted (but still competitive) Big East.
Important non-conference match-ups still loom for the Wildcats. Before league play tips on January 8, Kentucky will face Mountain West contender Boise State, hot-and-cold North Carolina, the Belmont team that knocked off the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last month, and a talented Louisville squad seeking a big non-conference win of its own. They still have plenty of chances to show why some fans were so excited to buy those "40-0" t-shirts during the offseason. Kentucky's ceiling remains high. Baylor exposed their lack of concentration and toughness on Friday night, but it's also telling that even with several glaring mistakes -- enough to frustrate Calipari to the point of up-and-leaving his postgame press conference -- the Wildcats only lost by five in front of one of the strangest backdrops we'll see all year. Most teams would take that, but Kentucky isn't most teams. If they are to return to Dallas in four months, they'll need to play with much better resolve than they showed yesterday.
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