Mark Wiedmer: Despite win, this UK team not like Cal's top Cats

Mark Wiedmer: Despite win, this UK team not like Cal's top Cats

January 16th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Kentucky coach John Calipari reacts to his team's play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Tennessee at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - In many years, with many Kentucky basketball teams, a 75-65 victory over Tennessee would have been reasonable cause for the winning coach to be happy.

And UK boss John Calipari was happy after Tuesday's win by that score. At least he was happier than had he lost.

"The last seven or eight years," he began, "I've coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people."

After a long pause for impact, he wryly added, "This ain't one of them."

His grammar aside, the point was obvious. The only resemblance between this team and last year's national champs is that the uniforms remain the same understated classics they've been the past two years and sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer (17 points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks) can still play a little.

Otherwise, both the Wildcats and Vols are worrisome works in progress, unable or unwilling to follow their coaches' seemingly sound advice.

"Guess what?" Cal asked rhetorically after watching his Kitty Kats improve to 11-5 overall and 2-1 in a laughably lackluster Southeastern Conference.

Countered UT coach Cuonzo Martin after watching his Vols fall to 8-7 overall and 0-3 in league play: "I thought our guys put us in position; we just didn't capitalize."

Oddly, both men were right.

Given Saturday's shocking 83-71 home loss to Texas A&M, UK certainly looked better than it had in either of its first two SEC contests. The Wildcats outrebounded the physical Vols 34-30. Shooting a wretched 65 percent from the foul line, UK hit three of its final four free throws against UT.

Conversely, down 47-39 with 13:44 to go, the Vols actually took the lead at 54-53 with 7:19 remaining.

Of course, from that point on it was almost all Kentucky, Big Blue outscoring Big Orange 22-11 down the stretch.

The surprise for UT fans might be who Martin believed was the key to this loss. Not because of how Yemi Makanjuola played, but because of how the Vols failed to play after he fouled out with 6:47 to go in a tie game.

"He has a tremendous presence around the rim, even though he is not the shot blocker of [UK's Nerlens] Noel," Martin said. "He is a physical guy and understands his assignments and knows where he needs to be."

Added UT guard Jordan McRae, who led the Vols with 23, his fourth straight game as leading scorer: "Yemi is like a defensive whiz. He knows where everybody is supposed to be at all times."

It's who Martin didn't mention for fouling out that says the most about the Vols' issues these days.

Though he played five minutes past Makanjuola before being flagged for his fifth and final personal of the night, Jarnell Stokes scored just four points and pulled in just five rebounds, hardly numbers one might expect from a preseason All-SEC pick and a Wooden Award candidate at season's dawn.

Yhe 6-foot-8, 270-pound sophomore has totaled 10 points and 12 rebounds in his last two games combined, and as long as that continues, the Vols will have a hard time winning any games, much less one at the home of the defending national champs.

As for Kentucky, their freshmen -- save Noel, whose 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and four steals scream NBA lottery pick -- are finally playing like freshmen.

That's a good thing for the rest of the league but a bad thing in the Big Blue Nation, where Cal entered this season with a remarkable 102-14 record after three years on the job, a national title, a second Final Four appearance and two SEC tourney crowns.

"I love this team," Cal said. "But we are going to be in dogfights. We go to Auburn [on Saturday], and it's going to be an absolute war for us to go down there and try to steal one."

When Calipari is talking about trying to steal one at Auburn, you know the Vols aren't the only SEC team struggling to meet expectations at the moment.