It is just this side of the second week in January, and we don’t know much. We don’t know who’s going to win either the Super Bowl, or the latest edition of “The Bachelor. “ (Ed. Note: We care about one. We couldn’t give a flip about the other.)
We don’t know which movie will win the Oscar for Best Picture, although we suspect part of its title can be found in one of your more popular Christmas carols (Fa la la LA LA…)
We don’t even know which NBA teams will make the playoffs, but we can hazard a pretty safe guess: Most of them.
We’re in the dark on a lot of things, but we do know that, amazingly, it’s the halfway point of the regular season for the Kentucky Wildcats. And we know it’s a team that will not make it to the Final Four. At least, not playing like this, it won’t.
It’s a conclusion that collided with a typist sitting in the Rupp Arena press box during the Wildcats’ 92-72 win over Auburn, a 20-point victory that certainly didn’t feel like a 20-point victory. But it’s also an opinion shared by one J. Calipari, professional coach, who happens to be in charge of these same Wildcats.
He said it after the game: “I still think we’re a month away to being what we need this thing to be, if we’re going to be one of those teams at the end, because we’re not there right now.”
One of “those teams,” meaning, one of the teams all the experts – fans and talking media heads alike – recognize as a team nobody wants to mess with in the NCAA tournament. They have the parts, they have the potential – but they don’t yet know how to get there.
Calipari thinks they will, and there’s time. While they’re halfway through their entire dance card, they’re only five games deep into their Southeastern Conference worksheet, with no blemishes. They can work through their issues with two and sometimes three games per week. But the biggest obstacle is what allows their coach to pull one of his favorite coaching terms from the same pocket where he probably stores his whistle: Trust.
“The team won’t trust each other enough to be special,” Calipari said. “Because you’re not disciplined, they don’t trust you’re going to do what you’re supposed to do. There’s a breakdown in trust. Now all of a sudden, everybody plays their own man and plays for themselves.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl admitted the Tigers’ game plan included drawing Kentucky’s big men, including the foreboding Bam Adebayo, away from the basket and then attacking the rim. Calipari insisted it was an offensive scheme designed merely to attack the Wildcats at the power forward spot.
Either way, it worked. Time and again, Auburn was able to get inside for some easy buckets. Pearl said the Tigers lacked when it came to kicking the ball back out, but they did knock down nine of 16 three pointers. They just couldn’t stop the Wildcats.
Malik Monk was spectacular again, with 24 points and an equally impressive six assists, rendered more valuable after De’Aaron Fox fouled out with more than seven minutes to play.
Wenyen Gabriel, the Wildcat with the delightful name, both first AND last, had a unique stat line with a career-high 16 rebounds, a pair of three pointers, two blocks and a goose egg at the free throw line in four attempts.
A total of five Kentucky players reached double figures but as usual, offense wasn’t the problem. Stopping the other guys was a challenge, as it has been several times this year. And it has to get better or their post-season appearance won’t be nearly as long as they’d like it to be.
“Until you get a team that plays with great discipline,” Calipari said, “they are not going to trust each other enough to get to be a special team.”
The kind of team that can win six games in the NCAA tournament. They’re not there. Not yet.