Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 12, 2013

AARON SNYDER: Champion qualities present in Wildcats?

Aaron Snyder
The Independent

ASHLAND — Togetherness and team defense. Two of the qualities that propelled Kentucky basketball to its national championship banner in 2012 may very well be present in this group.

Of course, Michigan State is lightyears beyond UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky, so the true test of those two characteristics happens tonight in the Windy City.

So far, pretty good.

And players say the best is yet to come.

“We're climbing,” said sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. “Every game, every practice, we're getting better.”

Are they ready to show the well-rounded Spartans why the Cats are No. 1 and Sparty is No. 2?

“I guess we'll find out,” said the 7-footer.

It took all of a minute for Wildcats coach John Calipari to start assessing his team's shot balance following Sunday's 93-63 blowout of Northern Kentucky.

He pointed out that six players attempted between five and 10 field goals, a good indication of team chemistry.

Aside from the initial moments of the second half, Kentucky's defense pleased its coach, too. Marcus Lee, the final piece to an eight-man rotation, might have been most impressive while utilizing his 6-foot-9, 215-pound frame.

"He can guard all five positions on the floor," Calipari said.

Of course Cal wasn't totally happy. Is he ever?

"Not enough assists," he shook his head. "We're holding the ball a little too long."

Point Taken

Exceptional point guard play, another staple of Calipari's most successful teams, is on the shoulders of Andrew Harrison. Most of Calipari's accusations of holding the ball too long are directed at the freshman.

"When I'm not doing it right, he lets me know," said Harrison, cracking a smile. "You have to be very mentally strong (to play point guard for Calipari). You can't take it too personally."

Power Impact

Julius Randle might be the quietest speaker on the team, but his actions on the court can be as noisy as 24,000-strong at Rupp Arena.

The 6-9, 250-pound freshman had the building rocking when he corralled a loose ball for a rebound, glided along the baseline and threw down a two-handed flush in the first half against the Norse.

Randle is the first Wildcat to record consecutive 20-point, 10-rebound games since Patrick Patterson in Dec. 2008. He has 45 points and 30 boards in two contests.

Still, there's Calipari desiring more.

"He should be averaging 20 rebounds a game," said the coach.

Randle's impact, though, is permeating. At one point in the second half, he and reserve forward Alex Poythress both locked grips on the ball. Randle finally relented his clutch — he already had his double-double.

Poythress, who has exceeded expectations so far, is also having an effect on Randle.

The sophomore hustled for an offensive rebound before Calipari turned and uttered a few words to Randle on the bench.

"He was just challenging me, saying that's what he needs me to do on the offensive glass," said Randle, who grabbed five offensive boards.

Big, Up and Down

Kentucky will be bigger and more athletic than most teams it plays.

On Sunday, that advantage was overwhelmingly evident.

NKU's tallest player stood at 6-7. Until the 6:19 mark of the second half, Kentucky's shortest player was 6-6 (Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron).

Said NKU coach Dave Bezold: "We couldn't simulate (UK's size) in practice. We even built extensions, made arms and hands. But Kentucky's so big and skilled at every spot and they keep coming in waves at you."

Bezold's Blue Blood

NKU's coach grew up a Kentucky fan, and he comes from a family full of Big Blue fans.

He had to resort to bribery to get his relatives to support him and the Norse on Sunday.

"Half my family, I had to bribe them not to wear Kentucky shirts," Bezold said. "They probably switched them out on the way in."

Bezold said he wished the Norse matched up with the Cats again in another month to help him gauge the growth of his team.

He didn't hesitate to share some other wishes.

"I hope they win the national championship," he said.

NKU's Area Ties

Kurt Young, who played basketball at East Carter High School, is an assistant to Bezold at NKU.

Ethan Faulkner, who finished up his NKU playing career last season, is now a graduate assistant.

Chad Jackson, who spent some of his high school years at Rose Hill Christian, is redshirting his senior season.

Bezold said in October that Jackson is sitting out in hopes that NKU's four-year wait to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament is reduced to two years. Typically, there is a four-year period between eligibility statuses upon transitioning from Division II to Division I.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664.