By Matt Norlander
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — There wasn’t one minute that went by Sunday afternoon when I didn’t think about just how freakily athletic Anthony Davis was. Or how staunch Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played. Or how yoked Terrence Jones became in the offseason.
It was my first time seeing UK since last year’s Final Four lost to Connecticut. Team looked good. Looked physical, intimidating and about the closest thing to an NBA collection of talent we’ll be seeing this season.
But despite all that skill, Kentucky merely managed an ugly, 62-52 win over Old Dominion. The game was in doubt until the final five minutes. There’s already talk — planted proudly and publicly by John Calipari — that ODU provided the blueprint for how to handle Kentucky. Ah, that mystical documentation that decodes Big Blue. Each season, it’s the Holy Grail.
Hogwash, largely. Teams are going to beat Kentucky this year be either A ) Shooting incredibly efficiently, B) Having at least two NBA players on their roster, C) Food poisoning. Old Dominion used its system and had its guys up for the biggest or second-biggest game it will play this season. Kentucky was playing in front of 3,000 people, for the second straight day, in a far-away arena in the middle of Nowhere, Connecticut.
“Kansas, we were really pumped up because we were playing at the Garden. We were just amped,” Davis said. “Here, you know, we were amped, but we weren’t ready to go.”
I can’t take much from this kind of win. I just came here to watch a team that’s quickly becoming college basketball’s version of The Beatles. The amount of Kentucky fans here was truly reprehensible — Connecticut isn’t worth a trip, folks — and you can already see how possible (and easy?) it could eventually be for Kentucky to get to back-to-back Final Fours. Right now, the team’s following a pattern that’s existed the past two years, Darius Miller said.
“It’s kind of the same. The last two years we’ve struggled early on to figure out what we were going to do,” Miller said. “Eventually we’re going to find out exactly how we want to play, everybody’ s going to have their role and know what they need to do.”
What I learned: Kentucky can’t always dictate the terms by which it will win this year. And when a team has five or six future pros, that’s pretty amazing. But the youth and all that, you know? You get that young, you don’t deserve the right to say how and why you will win or lose. UK couldn’t push it, no matter how hard they tried. I can’t help but think of North Carolina played Old Dominion on a neutral court in three days that the Tar Heels would put up 75 with ease.
UNC has a point guard with experience and savvy. Kentucky has Marquis Teague, a flashy player who played god-awful Sunday. Teague had a stat correlation no one ever wants: as many points as turnovers (six).
For more than an hour, Old Dominion made it a fun game. An ugly one, but still fun.
“The only thing I regret is those last five minutes could have been an awful lot of fun,” Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor said. “We worked pretty hard the first 35 to get to the last five, and then we didn’t get to have fun down the stretch.”
Taylor’s team shook UK’s mental toughness. Jones and Davis were genuinely challenged and rattled at times. It’s what Calipari want to see right now—a team threaten his team without really threatening them. Kentucky does no good to itself by rolling fools to the tune of 96-63 each night.
Kentucky pasted Penn State Saturday, and what can we take from that? Nothing, really. Penn State's young and rebuilding. Old Dominion has some experience, an idea of what it can do.
“When you’re winning by 50 you can kind of put cotton in your ears sometimes,” Taylor said. “Not very many people had zoned them. So, one they hadn’t seen it … I thought we were kind of catching them at a point where we didn’t know what they were going to do or react. And they’re used to having their way, and the zone didn’t let them have their way, or give them immediate gratification, which they’re used to.”
“I think it’s just chemistry, to tell you the truth,” Kidd-Gilchrist said. “It’s the chemistry on the court. We’re still figuring stuff out and we’re very young. But we’re very and we’re going to be very good. I’m not worrying about anything.”