NEW YORK – It was around this time a week ago that John Calipari said freshman point guard Marquis Teague was farther along than his Coach Cal point guard predecessors.
Kentucky fans are considering the context of that statement now.
Teague struggled in the first half of Tuesday’s primetime affair with Kansas, turning the ball over six times under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and a nationally televised audience.
“He said it was the officials,” Calipari said. “I’ve got a lot of young players.”
The freshman rebounded after halftime, turning in a turnover-free, 11-point second half, but the performance was a humble reminder that, despite his early season progress and praise, he’s still just a couple of games into his college career.
Early season inconsistencies are part of the learning process with Coach Cal’s point guards. Brandon Knight turned the ball over 18 times in three games in Maui last year in late November, and Derrick Rose was criticized on national TV by Dick Vitale early in his freshman season.
Both those players went on to lead their teams to the Final Four. In other words, early season struggles are part of the evolution process of a Calipari-coached point guard.
If anything, Teague’s game against Kansas provides Calipari with the perfect opportunity to say, “Are you ready to listen and play how I want you to play now?” His track record indicates he knows a thing or two about point guards.
“You get a little frustrated when you’re a freshman,” said sophomore point guard Doron Lamb, who filled in for Teague and calmed things down at the point in the first half when Teague struggled to find a rhythm. “He got a little excited trying to go one on one in the first half, but in the second half he settled down, let the game come to him and he had a couple of buckets we really needed in the second half.”
Teague wasn’t the only freshmen who received a baptism in New York. For many of the Wildcats, it was their first game in the historic Madison Square Garden.
“Right now, offensively, we’re right about 20 percent of the time,” Calipari said Wednesday at a news conference to announce next year’s Maryland game in New York. “After the game I told them, ‘If you break off the offense I’m taking you out.’ Literally, we had guys catch it at the top, supposed to go left and they just went right. (They say), ‘Well, I felt it.’ ‘I don’t know what you felt, but you better feel something different.’
“But that’s where we’re at when you start three freshmen and two sophomores. Everybody says, ‘Well, they’re talented.’ It’s not talent that wins. Teams win; teams that are playing together. Talented teams that play together become really good. This team has talent. We’re just not very good right now.”
Cal: Wiltjer needs to play more
Leading up to the game, Coach Cal said he raved to national analysts about freshman Kyle Wiltjer more than anyone else. Lo and behold Wiltjer played just three minutes against Kansas.
“Kyle needs to play a minimum of 15 minutes,” Calipari said. “He really does. What happened was we got so shaky I went with those six.”
Speaking to the team at a team meal Wednesday, Calipari told Wiltjer that he would play him more in the future. Calipari said a lot of people, including his wife, jumped on him for not playing him enough.
The 6-foot-9 freshman forward scored 14 points in the season opener against Marist.
“The sad thing is you didn’t get a chance to see this kid play and he’s a really good player, really skilled,” Calipari told the national media after the game.
With less than two minutes left in the game, Calipari asked Wiltjer if he wanted to go in. Wiltjer didn’t hesitate. The lack of an ego impressed Calipari
“A lot of guys would say, ‘Nah, I’m good,’ ” Calipari said.
Cal wants Cats to develop killer instinct
There were few things to dislike about UK’s second-half performance, but if Coach Cal wanted to nitpick, he would point to the inability to close out the game.
“We had some bad turnovers down the stretch,” Calipari said. “My point was, if it was a 10-point game and we played like we did at the end, we lose. You’ve got to finish off games, and we’re still learning (how to do that).”
Kentucky led by as many as 17 points with 5:23 remaining, but Kansas cut it to single digits with 30 seconds to play. That was ultimately too little time for the Jayhawks to stage a comeback, but letting teams hang around is a recipe for disaster for future games.
“I was disappointed because you want to finish a team off,” Calipari said.
Rain on their parade
With the timing of Tuesday night’s matchup and the proximity to Uncasville, Conn., the Cats are staying in the Northeast instead of flying back to Lexington before the next two games in Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.
The team is staying in New York on Wednesday before taking a bus to Connecticut on Thursday. UK will visit and practice at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., on Friday (more details on that to come) before two games at the Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday and Sunday.
The players were scheduled to visit the 9/11 Memorial on Wednesday afternoon after study hall, but rain in New York canceled the trip. The players have the day off from basketball.