Kentucky's kids are ahead of the curve, but still have a lot to learn
Led by freshmen John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, young Kentucky vaulted to No. 1
As good as they are, the Wildcats' inexperience resulted in a loss to S. Carolina
Wall, Bledsoe and Wildcats are humble and have no problem deferring to hot hand
The No. 1 quasi-amateur basketball team in the land enjoyed its ranking for less than a day. Kentucky was named No. 1 by the Associated Press on Monday and likely lost it the following night in South Carolina. In between, John Calipari's Wildkittens took a call from President Obama -- "Gym Rat-In-Chief, on Line 1'' -- who congratulated them on hosting a telethon in Lexington last week that raised $1.3 million for the Haitian earthquake victims.
Then the 'Cats went out and got schooled by a 5-foot-9 South Carolina guard named Devan Downey, who happens to be a senior. Downey made shots you'd try in the driveway playing HORSE. He scored 30 points in the Gamecocks' 68-62 win. That's an important fact in this story, because Kentucky has all of two seniors, and neither starts. Calipari plays three freshmen with NBA dreams.
Devan Downey knows what he knows. UK's freshmen brought their No. 2 pencils.
You sign three of the best kids in the country -- John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins -- you're going to have a fun ride, more fun than most. But it won't be without a whoopee cushion or two along the way. That's just how it is.
"Big Foot,'' says Bledsoe of Cousins. Cousins is 6-foot-11 and weighs 260 pounds. Some kid.
Cousins, says Bledsoe, likes to dance. "In the weight room,'' Bledsoe says. "The Dancing Bear. He can't dance. He knows it. That's the bad part. Anything you put on, he dances to. He says, 'I gotta get my dance on.' ''
Cousins is a Bump near the basket. On Monday at South Carolina, he scored 27 points from a variety of spots, including a reverse layup. At one point, he stepped out to guard Downey. Cousins kept the 'Cats in the game. Kentucky needed more from the kid who's already got inside position for national Player of the Year -- John Wall.
"Goofy,'' Bledsoe says of Wall. Bledsoe says Wall occasionally speaks a language no one understands. Not long ago, some players paid a visit to a local chicken joint named Indi's. Wall ordered "oysters.''
"You at a chicken spot,'' he was told. "Ain't no oysters here.''
Wall insisted that any decent chicken place in the South would offer a side of oysters. Turns out, what Wall wanted was okra. Wall plays a better game than he talks. Bledsoe and his teammates found this amusing. "They did have okra,'' Bledsoe says, still laughing on Wednesday.
Bledsoe doesn't laugh about Wall the player. "A good teammate. He ain't no selfish player,'' Bledsoe says. "I knew that (about him) when I signed.''
That has been reinforced by another gag Bledsoe and his mates enjoy at Wall's expense. Occasionally, upon approaching an opponent's arena, someone will announce, "Here come John Wall and the rest of the Wildcats!''
The Kentucky Walls?
"Yeah,'' Bledsoe says. "(Wall) gets real mad when we do that. That's how we know he's a good teammate. He doesn't throw (his status) in our face. People talk about how arrogant he is. They don't know John.''
Bledsoe is the Other Freshman, a point guard who plays alongside Wall. Last spring, his high school coach advised him not to go to Kentucky, for that reason. "Is he going to get his minutes?'' Maurice Ford wondered last June. (Yes, actually. He's averaging close to 30 a game.) Last week, Ford told the Lexington Herald-Leader he was anxious for Wall to leave UK. "I want (Bledsoe) to be out front,'' Ford said.
What does Bledsoe want?
"I was tired of being The Guy,'' he says. "I wanted to put myself with a bunch of other talented people. I want to win a championship and you can't win it by yourself in college.'' Being Robin to Batman is OK, then?
"Absolutely,'' Bledsoe says. "You have to be with a whole bunch of people who are good. It ain't just about you. Points are points. Whoever's on that day, we feed him. It's not about whose name is going to be in the draft. If we win, everybody gets a piece of the pie.''
Bledsoe likes playing for Calipari. He calls it "a rare opportunity to have a coach who lets you do what you can do. When we need something, he just tells me and John to make a play. Most coaches will tell you to run their play.''
At 19-1 and ranked No. 1 for the moment, it's hard to find fault with the freshmen experiment Calipari's conducting. But the loss Monday night raised new questions about whether a freshmen-oriented team can win it all. And winning it all is all that matters at Kentucky.
Calipari had top-ranked teams at Memphis and UMass, but acknowledges those were veteran teams. The current 'Cats are "children,'' he says. "But they're very good children.''
It prompts a very good debate: Do you go after the best high school players, knowing they won't stay more than a year or two? Wall is merely auditioning; Cousins and Bledsoe could be, too. Or do you find good players who will exhaust their eligibility, grow together and be formidable by the time they're juniors and seniors?
Listening to Bledsoe gives you the impression that UK's kids are not only hallowed, but humble enough to yield the floor to whoever's hot. They're not selfish. They don't appear to be in a hurry. But they're freshmen. They're not quite there.
Devan Downey made that obvious on Monday. If Downey's determination were not enough, South Carolina had six more offensive rebounds than Kentucky and, as Bledsoe says, "rebounding is our strength.'' That suggests a lack of want-to, which suggests a lack of understanding of the opponent and the situation. Which describes first-year players. Even the best first-year players.
Downey, the senior, schooled the can't-miss kids. Lesson administered. Lesson learned? We shall see.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
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