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Ugly win over Texas reveals Kentucky's strengths, challenges

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The student selected to participate in the halftime shooting contest was named "Mac Daddy," or at least that's what the Rupp Arena emcee called him. Mac Daddy's task was simple: Make a free throw, win John Calipari's autograph. Make a 3-pointer, win a slightly larger prize. Make a half-court shot and, well, you get the idea.

Mac Daddy didn't come close. Neither did his teammate, Kentucky's mascot Wildcat, though, to be fair, it can't be easy to hit a jumper wearing giant costume gloves. Mac Daddy's problem was simpler: He clearly had no idea how to shoot a basketball. By the time his big moment arrived -- the half-court shot, the crowd hushing in anticipation -- Mac Daddy chucked up a one-handed heave.

Rarely has an intermission so succinctly summarized so much of the actual game surrounding it. Almost all of Kentucky's 63-51 win over Texas was pocked by horrendous shooting, questionable officiating, ugly defense, more horrendous shooting, and a steady stream of groans from the packed-in Kentucky faithful.

Almost all, except nine minutes. For those nine minutes, Kentucky was beautiful. Beginning at the start of the second half, when they went on an 18-2 run that made a 26-26 halftime tie a 44-28 lead, the Wildcats provided a roaring glimpse of their title-or-bust greatness.

"We knew coming in, they're the No. 1 team for a reason," Texas forward Jonathan Holmes said. "They were going to make a run."

The other 31 minutes reinforced the challenges, and the mind-boggling strengths, that still await the Wildcats in the months to come.

Chief among them may be shooting. Kentucky entered the night making just 37 percent from 3, a minor flaw that hadn't hurt it to date, mostly because the tallest collection of talent in the country has had no problem finding gobs of easy makes around the rim. On Friday, particularly in the first half, those easy baskets went missing. The Wildcats had little problem breaking down Texas' 2-3 zone, and Willie Cauley-Stein found himself on the receiving end of easy catches repeatedly. But time after time, he and his teammates -- particularly Aaron and Andrew Harrison, who combined to go 3-of-17 -- just couldn't make their shots.

Even after Kentucky made its run, comprised as it was of rushed Texas turnovers and easy buckets around the rim, the Wildcats fell back into the offensive issues of the first half. The fact that Texas, which shot 14-of-47 from the field overall, was within striking distance of the lead late was one of the many mysteries on offer Friday night.

"What happened today is our guards shot 4-for-27," Calipari said. "And we won. And we got outrebounded by 12. And we won. What? What just happened?"

Well, a few things. There was some overwhelmed officiating: Texas coach Rick Barnes, generous as ever, said he thought the referees had never had to call a "big boy game" quite this physical before. Between the two teams 51 fouls were whistled, a sizable portion of which came off the ball, in the post, two large men wrestling for space in quasi-illegal ways. There was plenty of good defense -- neither team averaged more than a point per trip, and Texas didn't get close, even as both raced toward the bonus in both halves -- but there was plenty of bad defense, too.

"That was a big boy game," Barnes said.

That style, and Texas' size, nudged Kentucky in slightly uncomfortable ways. In the closest and most harried performance of its season so far, Calipari discarded the platoon system he has so readily marketed this fall. Late in the first half, Kentucky began subbing the good old-fashioned way, a player or two at a time. He mixed his previously distinct groups into different formations. And, most notably, Calipari sat forward Marcus Lee (who played just four minutes) and leaned heavily on Cauley-Stein (who played a season-high 33).

This may also present a relatively new, if conventional, challenge for Kentucky, the one its coach was hoping to avoid by evenly dividing minutes. How will the rotations change going forward? If they change too much, will specific players, expecting an equal share of playing time, be dissatisfied? Even if playing time is allotted equally, will jumbled groups of five require a new learning curve? The platoon system may be slightly crazy, but it's also an elegant solution. Does a roster this deep work without it?

After the game, Calipari insisted he wasn't leaving the platoon idea behind, only tweaking it for the purposes of the moment. But in some ways, the only real question about Kentucky entering this season -- whether it somehow had too much talent -- lingers on.

"At halftime, I called Marcus in and said, 'You're [Cauley-Stein's] backup today,'" Calipari said. "If [Cauley-Stein] wants to come out, you can go in. If he doesn't, you're not going to play a whole lot today. He was too good."

Whatever the long-term implications, Calipari's adjustments worked. Cauley-Stein was Kentucky's energetic centerpiece Friday night, both in the Wildcats' early second-half surge and their less fluid push to the finish. Cauley-Stein finished with 21 points, 12 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 blocks, overcoming early offensive hiccups and anchoring the Wildcats on defense throughout. That contribution marks a sea change in Cauley-Stein's development, who for most of his first two seasons existed as a leaper and a shot-blocker but little more. He is still those things, too, but now he's more.

"I think I've finally accepted that, if I'm going to help my team, I've got to be able to do that," Cauley-Stein said.

In the end, when you're as good as Kentucky, these are what count as challenges. That the only other team in the country with the size to match up with your front line mostly did so, at least for a while. That one of your players, a junior who passed up two straight chances at the NBA lottery, is having a night so good he might need to usurp his counterpart's minutes.

That you were pushed a bit in a loss. That your guards didn't shoot the ball particularly well. That you won ugly over the No. 6-ranked team in the country. That your fans groaned a little as you shot the ball just slightly better than the halftime entertainment -- just before your dominant 18-2 run sent them into a frenzy.

"Our defense is at about 70 percent," Calipari said. "Our offense is at about 50 percent."

The question is: What does 100 percent look like?