Preach on, Jay Bilas.

On last Saturday’s “College Gameday” show on ESPN, Bilas talked about how Kentucky is doing things the right way, in everything from sharing the basketball and playing hard to avoiding off-court missteps. And he said such a program would be lavished with praise if it was happening someplace other than Lexington.

At Georgia, Kentucky once again demonstrated that when it is challenged, this team of immensely talented individuals players always pulls together to defeat its foe with a collective will. With the perfect season in serious jeopardy midway through the second half, the Wildcats had found a way to score consistently with Karl-Anthony Towns but they had to find a way to get stops or Georgia was going to win. And on seven consecutive possessions, Kentucky kept UGA from scoring and the game was won.

It’s only when asked about that these players acknowledge their potential history-making nature of their season but Calipari has admitted that these players want that special legacy more than than admit. It had been three weeks, since the comeback win at LSU, since the Wildcats’ streak had been seriously threatened, in the final five mintues of a close game. You could argue that seeing perfection coming closer on the horizon would drive them to excellence but there was also the chance it would cause them to play with a fear of losing. There was no sign of that mindset at Georgia.

Credit Calipari for addressing that issue in his halftime talk. And credit him for continuing to preach that a loss is not the end of the world. He’s been down this road before and he knows the tone a coach needs to set to keep his players from focusing too much on the goal and not enough on the process of getting there.

At this point, the biggest risk to UK’s winning streak is Kentucky. If the Cats “bring it”–preferably from the start but at the least, when the outcome is in doubt–then they likely will not run into an opponent until the Elite Eight or later that is maybe good enough to beat them in that mode.

-Tom Leach

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Preach on, Jay Bilas.

On last Saturday’s “College Gameday” show on ESPN, Bilas talked about how Kentucky is doing things the right way, in everything from sharing the basketball and playing hard to avoiding off-court missteps. And he said such a program would be lavished with praise if it was happening someplace other than Lexington.

At Georgia, Kentucky once again demonstrated that when it is challenged, this team of immensely talented individuals players always pulls together to defeat its foe with a collective will. With the perfect season in serious jeopardy midway through the second half, the Wildcats had found a way to score consistently with Karl-Anthony Towns but they had to find a way to get stops or Georgia was going to win. And on seven consecutive possessions, Kentucky kept UGA from scoring and the game was won.

It’s only when asked about that these players acknowledge their potential history-making nature of their season but Calipari has admitted that these players want that special legacy more than than admit. It had been three weeks, since the comeback win at LSU, since the Wildcats’ streak had been seriously threatened, in the final five mintues of a close game. You could argue that seeing perfection coming closer on the horizon would drive them to excellence but there was also the chance it would cause them to play with a fear of losing. There was no sign of that mindset at Georgia.

Credit Calipari for addressing that issue in his halftime talk. And credit him for continuing to preach that a loss is not the end of the world. He’s been down this road before and he knows the tone a coach needs to set to keep his players from focusing too much on the goal and not enough on the process of getting there.

At this point, the biggest risk to UK’s winning streak is Kentucky. If the Cats “bring it”–preferably from the start but at the least, when the outcome is in doubt–then they likely will not run into an opponent until the Elite Eight or later that is maybe good enough to beat them in that mode.

-Tom Leach

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Spectacular dunks usually dominate the SportsCenter top 10 plays in basketball season, but there’s nothing better to watch for me as a hoops fan than a pure shooter who is in a groove. And that’s Devin Booker right now.

He’s in that zone Jodie Meeks lived in back in 2009. I don’t know if Booker will be dropping 54 points on anybody but he might well have had a few 30-point nights by now if he played on a team without the depth that this Kentucky team has.

Former UK star Kevin Grevey, himself a great shooter, stopped by to visit before Saturday’s game at South Carolina, and the first thing he wanted to talk about was Booker’s shooting. He noted that Booker’s form is so good that you think every shot is going in and you never worry about his game even if he gets into a slump (Booker has had two different 1-for-11 streaks from the three-point line this season and yet is still knocking down 3’s at a rate better than 50 percent).

South Carolina coach Frank Martin talked about the Booker-Tyler Ulis backcourt combo after Saturday’s game and how UK could be good with either them or the Harrison twins on the court, but having all four of them takes the Wildcats to another level. Booker and Ulis have the luxury of playing as loose as one can at a program that gets as much scrutiny as this one does, because the Harrisons take the bulk of the criticism, especially Andrew.

Getting into those debates is counter-productive for Big Blue fans, but those discussions are also inevitable. The good thing for John Calipari is that all signs point to his players all being into the notion that the sum is greater than any individual part.

Kentucky hasn’t had many close games this season, but getting to the national title will surely require surviving some of those nail biters. And when those kinds of games come, Kentucky is likely to have some combination of three of those four backcourt players on the court at crunch time. And that has to be very comforting for a coach.

-Tom Leach

One of the benefits of broadcasting for the UK Radio Network is the chance to watch the Cats in practice, particularly on game days when Calipari and his staff are putting the finishes touches on the team’s preparation.

Last Saturday at Alabama, Mike Pratt and I watched as Calipari gave them specific instructions for how to attack the 2-3 zone he expected to see from Bama. And then to watch the game unfold and see those players execute what they were told was a thing of beauty. Those quick short passes from guard to baseline to big man cutting down the lane for a basket—not just a coincidence. Same for those open shots in the corners that the Cats knocked down. Those were the spots they were supposed to attack and they did it as coached. When this team is that focused, I don’t know if there’s any opponent out there that can prevail in a matchup with Kentucky.

Contrast that to the previous Saturday at Texas A&M. If you listened to our radio broadcast, you would have heard Pratt lamenting UK defenders running out to challenge opposing players at the three-point line when those players were not three-point shooters. Then, that player would drive by the on-rushing defender and break down the Cats’ defense. Those were things that were covered in the scouting report and yet, clearly, players were not as dialed in that day.

As Calipari often says, they’re not computers (as if computers are not prone to doing strange things themselves). Some days, a team this young is more tuned in than at other times—a fact that every coach deals with. But the two examples just serve to underscore that the greatest threat to Kentucky having a “special” season is Kentucky.

-Tom Leach

Remember the “January slump” of the Joe B. Hall era? Maybe that’s what has hit the Kentucky basketball team.

In all seriousness, ESPN’s Seth Greenberg had the wisest tweet of the day Saturday when he said it’s just hard to win on the road in league play—no matter who you are.  Media and fans scoffed when Calipari said Texas A&M would be licking their chops for a chance to beat the Cats after watching how Ole Miss played at Rupp Arena, and it turns out he was right when you heard the postgame comments of the A&M players.

Maybe the wins came so easily for the Wildcats that they lost some of their edge just at the time the opponents were going to come at them harder than ever. The way Kentucky is playing right now could spell doom for those of you rooting for a perfect season. But, in the big picture, no team stays at the level Kentucky played in some of those non-conference games, so it’s better to deal with a regression in form now than in March.

One thing opponents are doing of late is taking away the lob dunks that the Kentucky big men feasted on during non-league play and the Cats must find a way to score between the rim and the three-point line.

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By the time Damien Harris announced his commitment to Alabama Friday afternoon, it hardly came as a surprise, given the information that had leaked out.

Mark Stoops and his staff had overcome big recruiting deficits to land Matt Elam, Ryan Timmons, Jason Hatcher and Drew Barker from out-of-state programs with strong gridiron traditions, so the fact that they finally lost one should not shock anybody or send any kind of negative message.

The one factor that differed in the recruitment of those players and Harris was the other four in-state stars played positions that meshed well with the new staff (i.e. Stoops’ prowess as a defensive coach) or style of play (the spread-type offense). Harris chose a program with a style of play that has led to an NFL pipeline that Harris referenced in his announcement. I think Harris could have thrived in Kentucky’s system, too, but the point here is that it’s easy to understand why he would be open to Bama’s pitch.

He seems like a bright, engaging young man and here’s hoping his career turns out like Shaun Alexander’s did at Alabama. It’s disappointing for Big Blue Nation that he chose to go elsewhere, but I expect Stoops to do just fine with this recruiting class and the upcoming season.

-Tom Leach

Kentucky enters a new phase of its season this week with the start of SEC play, and because of the national perception of the league as being weak, it means two-and-a-half months without any “big” games for the Wildcats.

However, because of UK’s potential of being the first team since Indiana ’76 to win the national title without taking a loss, the Cats will still dominate the chatter among the TV talking heads—and that’s a good thing, as it could help keep them sharp if they continue racking up double-digit win margins.

Last year’s team was too young to handle the hoopla that accompanied the ballyhooed freshman class but this group seems quite at ease in the glare of the spotlight.  Just look at how they’ve played their best in the marquee games on the non-conference schedule.

Being undefeated would be great but these guys should know that the title is the thing that gets you remembered as being special.  If a perfect record comes with it, all the better, but whether this Kentucky team runs the table in the SEC or not, it is the games in the NCAA Tournament that will determine their legacy.

John Calipari’s challenge over the course of league play is to help this group avoid becoming complacent.  I think the SEC is better overall than it was last year, but the way UK plays defense, it’s hard to make a case for the Cats to lose to a conference foe.  Still, crazy things can happen when you get into the grind of a league schedule, against teams that are used to competing against you and don’t back down as easily as other opponents might.

-Tom Leach

Rick Pitino called Kentucky the best defensive team he’s seen in 40 years after his Cardinals lost 58-50 on Saturday in Louisville.  Earlier this season, EKU’s Jeff Neubauer said the Cats are the “best defensive team in the modern era” of the college game.  Size and athleticism is a big part of it, but so is Kentucky’s amazing team chemistry.

Great defensive teams are like great offensive lines in football—five guys working as one unit. Kentucky seamlessly switches off from one opposing player to another, and they rotate to find an open defender the way offensive lines pass off a rusher from one blocker to the next.

Calipari’s teams almost always rank high in terms of the opponents’ field goal percentage, but this group has taken it to an entirely new level of excellence. Through a non-conference schedule that has included five marquee games (as opposed to four last year), Kentucky is holding opponents to 29.7 percent shooting from the field.  Last season, UK finished at 41.1 percent in that category.  According to kenpom.com, the percentage of shots they’re blocking is 22.4 versus 14.9 at the end of last season. And this team is stealing the ball at a much higher rate than is typical for a Calipari-coached squad. Have you noticed that the Cats have one more steal than blocked shots thus far?

That on-court cohesiveness is why Calipari is eager to shoot down any debates about who should start at point guard—or any place else for that matter.  Some will tell you that Kentucky would be better with Tyler Ulis playing more minutes at the point. But how would disrupting the distribution of minutes at any position impact the way this team plays? Calipari is ultimately coaching this team for six games in March, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see both point guards playing a good bit together whenever games get close at crunch time.

The selflessness of this team should be the dominant storyline for Kentucky and you don’t want to do anything to mess with that.

-Tom Leach