Before Tuesday's Champions Classic, Kentucky head coach John Calipari said his team's matchup with Michigan State was "not fair."
A seemingly strange comment from the coach of the No. 1 team in the country, but Calipari was referring to the fact that Kentucky would be playing its second game of the season with four freshmen in the starting lineup against a Spartans team returning four starters from a year ago. You understand what he's trying to say, but at the same time, it's hard to feel bad for a guy who brings in a new haul of top-flight recruits each season.
So when Michigan State beat Kentucky on Tuesday night at the United Center, with the Wildcats turning the ball over left and right and missing all sorts of free throws, Calipari wasn't in the least bit surprised.
"This kind of tournament is great for college basketball. It's terrific for the teams. It's just tough for a really young team," Calipari said. "I knew we would start that way. I told the staff, 'Let's just hope it's not 15-0, but I bet you it gets to 12.' And we still, throughout the game, instead of that one extra pass, we held the ball. Julius (Randle) had eight turnovers for one reason, he held the ball. Then he tried to go against five guys. You can't play basketball that way. ... Here's the deal. We had 17 turnovers, and some of them were so ugly, I know you people were looking at them and saying, 'Oh my gosh.' ... You miss 16 free throws, you don't deserve to win the game. ... It should have been 20 at half, and you all know that. It should have been 20 at half."
The first half was the best case against Calipari's annual import of one-and-dones ever presented. Kentucky couldn't do a thing as the Spartans executed to perfection at will. The second half, however, was the perfect illustration of how top talent can overcome nearly any obstacle. Randle scored 23 points in the second half, putting the team on his shoulders and leading them all the way back, at one point tying the game. Randle is 18 years old.
Eventually, Michigan State's experience allowed them to make the plays needed to win the game. But Calipari knew that would happen. His team has been together for a fraction of the time Tom Izzo's has. And he's not complaining, this is the route he picked. But this early in the season, the only thing that surprised Calipari was the fact that the game was as close as it ended up being.
"They've never been in an environment like this, one," he said of his players. "And two, when guys get that they get into themselves a little bit. It's natural. So now everybody's trying to do their thing, and it looks discombobulated. And that's what it was, and that's what I expected. I told them at half, 'Dudes, you're down six baskets, that's amazing.' I said, 'You should be down 20, 22 points right now.' The question will be, do you want to try to win the game. They did. ... We just did stuff that shot ourselves in the foot. But that's what kids like this are going to do."
Calipari's latest group of kids includes nine freshmen, including five of the top 11 recruits (six of the top 19) in the country as ranked by Rivals. When you're constantly replenishing a program with 18-year-olds, it's difficult to maintain consistency. Calipari has done it, though, earning admiration from his peers.
"John has done an incredible job," Izzo said. "I told him, 'How many NBA teams have seven first-round picks on them?' Really. That's not a knock, that's a fact. A couple, I'm sure, but not many. So this team he's got will get better, but they've got some growing to do, too. They're going to have to get better in some areas. ... They've got to get better, and they will get better."
Calipari knows that there's growing to do, and he thinks a loss like this one can make that happen.
"You had guys crying there, which is a good thing. That was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana last year. So you had kids crying, and I want it to hurt like that," he said. "I knew this would get their attention in the first half. The biggest thing is, if you do not do this together you will not win. You'll never be a special team. So you've got to truly do this together, and that's both on defense and offense."
In the end, after Calipari's "not fair" comment had been scrutinized to death, after debates raged over whether Calipari had any right to say such a thing with the way he runs his program and after Michigan State walked away with a victory and Kentucky a loss, it turned out that he might have been right. Maybe it wasn't fair to throw these kids into the fire so early.
Calipari said the key plays in the game — a Keith Appling three and Gary Harris steal and layup that turned a freshly tied game into an instant five-point Michigan State edge, which they held for good — came down to effort. But really, how would these guys know what kind of effort it would take against one of college basketball's elite groups?
"They played," Calipari said of the victorious Spartans. "They had been in these moments before. My team had not."
When you look at it that way, maybe it wasn't very fair.