Posted on Mon, Nov. 14, 2005
First-game grade? Incomplete
'A WORK IN PROGRESS,' CATS NOT YET OUT OF BAG
By John Clay
HERALD-LEADER SPORTS COLUMNIST
Removing the bubble wrap on a brand-new college basketball season last night in Rupp Arena, the first five minutes were not exactly what Kentucky may have had in mind.
Maybe the first 40 minutes.
There is flying out of the gate, and there is running into the gate.
Tubby Smith's team missed its first eight shots.
"I didn't know what was going on," said Rajon Rondo.
Luckily, the initial opponent, i.e. the appointed victim, had no clue either. The South Dakota State Jackrabbits missed 16 of their first 17 shots.
"When we were through starting lineups, our guys were out of their mind," said SDSU Coach Scott Nagy, his team making the transition from Division II powerhouse to Division I neophyte. "I had to tell them to calm down."
Welcome to the Guardians Classic.
To be sure, matters came to the proper order in the form of a double-digit Cat cushion as ninth-ranked Kentucky did what was required to beat back the Jackrabbits 71-54.
The triumph earned Smith's team a date with Lipscomb tonight on the gilded path to the Guardians semifinals next week in Kansas City, an outcome so assumed that dead-ball timeouts were used to advertise tickets -- "Follow the Cats to Kansas City!"
But those hoping to grab an early-season handle on this Cat edition were left grasping.
"I think early on," said senior guard Patrick Sparks, "we're going to be a work in progress."
By date, it is the second-earliest start in UK hoops history. So no wonder the progress pales in comparison to the list of things to work on.
The remarkable Rondo did grab a dozen rebounds to go with his 17 points, six steals and six assists.
Overall, "I'd give us about a 7," said Joe Crawford when asked to give a first-game grade.
Tubby concur with that?
"Oh no," Crawford said. "I know his would be a lot lower."
Got that right.
"We played hard," Smith said, "but we didn't play particularly smart."
"First-game jitters," said Crawford.
Even public-address announcer Doug Bruce opened a little rusty, announcing Rekalin Sims as a starter when it was actually Crawford who took the floor first.
"I thought we introduced six guys at one point, didn't we?" Smith joked. "I thought we had the game won, right there."
They probably did. While this was opening night and a "tournament," it's probably hard to work up goose bumps when the opponents are hand-picked easy pickings.
It's the art of the deal. The good-hearted Guardians provided the four regional site hosts with checks from a pair of opening-round games and a couple of cupcakes, all the better to assure a fearsome foursome in Kansas City. Those four would be Texas, West Virginia, Iowa and, yes, the Cats.
The not-so-impressive Cats, as it turned out. With six minutes left, scrappy South Dakota State had sliced the Kentucky lead to 14 at 63-49.
"We didn't close out the game very well," Rondo said. "Our transition defense; we didn't get back like we're supposed to."
"We had issues with our post players," said Smith.
"Hopefully," Sparks said, "we'll come back tomorrow and have a little better performance."
It's not how you start. It's how you finish.
"I wish we could have played better," Smith said. "Maybe we can (tonight)."