LEXINGTON (AP) — The happiness expressed by Kentucky players after their victory over Boise State wasn’t just because they played the type of game indicative of their abilities.
For once, the 11th-ranked Wildcats had a performance to build from.
That’s a big issue for Kentucky (8-2), which faces another measuring stick Saturday at No. 18 North Carolina. The game will mark the young Wildcats’ first on-campus road test after going 1-2 in neutral-site games.
They showed signs of growth Tuesday night in a 70-55 victory over Boise State. Though the Wildcats’ highly touted freshmen remain a project with plenty of lessons to learn in a challenging month before Southeastern Conference play begins, they took a step forward and look forward to what’s next against the Tar Heels (6-2).
“We’re all thinking about the North Carolina game,” guard/forward James Young said after leading the Wildcats with 21 points. “This (Boise State) game is now in the past, and we’re thinking about the next game, trying to do as good against them as we did (Tuesday night).”
Soul-searching followed Friday night’s 67-62 loss to No. 14 Baylor that dropped Kentucky out of the top 10. What bothered the Wildcats more than losing a nine-point lead over the final 13 minutes was how they lost it — being outrebounded for the first time all season along with the Bears outworking them in other ways.
Other than a brief early lull that allowed the Broncos to take their only lead at 14-13, the Wildcats imposed their notable size advantage and will on them throughout. Kentucky outrebounded Boise State 43-27, shot 53 percent from the field and outscored the Broncos 44-24 in the paint.
Seven-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein had nine of the Wildcats’ 10 blocks, which made Boise State players think twice about taking subsequent attempts inside. The Wildcats ended up holding the nation’s No. 2 offense 37 points below its average along with denying Boise State’s quest for its first 9-0 start. The Broncos shot just 32 percent including 23 percent (8 of 35) in the second half.
More notable was how much better Kentucky was switching on defense, perhaps the best indication that things are slowly falling into place.
“We have some things we can do,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “We can be a terrific zone team, too, we’re so big and long. But you’ve got to work at zone. In other words, you got to play harder in the zone than you do man to man…
“So, we’ve been working on it. Whether we’re able to go to it, I don’t know yet. But I think we’ve got some things. We’re pressing more now. We did a couple different things in the press.”
It wasn’t perfect, as Kentucky committed 19 turnovers. But Calipari has stressed that it will be an ongoing process with all the freshmen, who have had to learn basics such as how to huddle at the foul line and communicating.
Kentucky players will certainly need to do a lot of talking and executing at North Carolina in a matchup of college basketball’s two winningest programs.
The Tar Heels have been up and down this season, beating defending national champion Louisville and top-ranked Michigan State but also losing to unranked Belmont and Alabama-Birmingham. They nonetheless remain a threat with Marcus Paige (18.8 points per game), Brice Johnson (13.6 points, 6.9 rebounds) and James M. McAdoo (13.0 points) leading the way.
Tempting as it might have been for the Wildcats to look past Boise State toward UNC, they managed to stay focused on the game at hand and came away with a satisfying victory they hopes to follow up against another traditional power also seeking consistency.
“I think this was a step forward for us,” said freshman forward Julius Randle, who leads Kentucky at 17.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game. “We still had some breakdowns and there’s a lot of stuff we could’ve worked on, but it’s a step forward. … Every game is a learning process for us.”