NCAA: Kentucky still learning to win while living on the edge

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BOISE (KT) — Kentucky has lived life on the edge all season. It shouldn’t come as a surprise the Wildcats did just enough to defeat Davidson in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

At least John Calipari’s squad didn’t fall victim to a first-round upset on the opening day of the biggest college basketball tournament of the year against an opposing Wildcat squad that made things uneasy throughout most of the game.

Davidson, which defeated Rhode Island in the Atlantic-10 Tournament title game to even make the tournament, went home on opening weekend, while the Rams advanced to the second round following a dramatic victory over Oklahoma Thursday.

For the first time since Eddie Sutton was roaming the sidelines, the Wildcats failed to make a 3-pointer in a game, but it didn’t matter. Kentucky didn’t need to make threes to counter Davidson’s 11 treys. Instead, Calipari’s squad relied on defense and rebounding to overcome the opposing Wildcats.

For a team that’s already played 35 games, Kentucky is still improving during a time when teams are exiting the Big Dance. They learned to play with Jarred Vanderbilt and then how to get by without him all in a span of more than a month. Thanks to Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel, the Wildcats have picked up the slack in Vanderbilt’s absence.

“They’re freshmen and they’re learning,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’re learning game-to-game now. Every one of these experiences is new.”

That means Kentucky hasn’t reached its peak just yet and that may not be a bad thing considering the way college basketball teams across the board have played this year.

“We have to mature some day,” Kentucky forward Kevin Knox said. “This is the time of the year (where) it’s win or go home.”

Kentucky is playing with a sense of urgency, but reverted back to its old ways at times against Davidson, a sign the Wildcats haven’t fully matured, especially on the court.

“We became undisciplined,” Calipari said. “There was a stretch where guys did what they wanted to do. … I’m holding them accountable and I’m just not clapping right now. Each time you play the next game you’re going to have to play more of a well-rounded game. … You can’t have three minutes of a breakdown.”

Now perfect in four postseason games, Kentucky is winning games without the luxury of playing close to home, especially playing on the biggest stage of the game. Kentucky had the homecourt advantage during the Southeastern Conference Tournament last weekend at the Scottrade Center but had little vocal support playing more than 1,000 miles away from Lexington.

Although Idaho isn’t home to Disneyland or feature must-see tourist attractions, the Wildcats don’t mind spending a few days in a state that’s known for its potatoes instead of must-see destinations. For this Kentucky team, sight-seeing isn’t on the list of things to do away from home and seem to be content with just eating and sleeping basketball.

“I’m really enjoying myself here,” Knox said. “There’s not much to do here, but I’m enjoying it. First time to be in this state. I’m here to play basketball, get these two wins and get back to Lexington with two (wins).”

The mission is halfway complete and the Wildcats need just one more victory to reach the South Region semifinals, a path that became a little easier following Buffalo’s 89-68 upset of No. 4 seed Arizona Thursday night.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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