BY DAN McGRATH
For the Sun-Times
The CBS Sports Classic staged at the United Center on Saturday was more than a basketball doubleheader featuring four blue-blood college teams. It was an NBA waiting room.
One scouting service lists 16 players from the four rosters among the 60 who will be picked when 30 NBA teams restock with a two-round draft in June. Not all of them play for Kentucky. It only seemed that way.
Boasting enough McDonald’s All-Americans to staff a 24-hour franchise, the Wildcats made an irrefutable case for their No. 1 ranking by overpowering UCLA 83-44 in the UC main event, a demolition so thorough it had to be seen to be appreciated.
“That’s as good as we go,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
In the opener, North Carolina cruised past Ohio State 82-74 in what came to feel like a JV scrimmage.
Kentucky led 7-0 when UCLA coach Steve Alford called a let’s-settle-down timeout just 1:35 into the game. It was 16-0 when Alford called a let’s-stop-the-bleeding timeout less than four minutes later. It was 24-0 when Alford made a third futile attempt to halt the carnage, and nearly eight minutes would elapse before the Bruins scored.
Kentucky led 41-7 at the half. And it wasn’t that close as UCLA made 3 of 37 shots (8.1 percent), with the Wildcats blocking nearly three times as many shots (eight) as UCLA made.
“I wasn’t aware of the score,” Calipari insisted. “I couldn’t find a scoreboard in the arena.”
These aren’t the Bruins of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, granted, but they’re a few steps up from the Grand Canyons and Montana States and Texas-Arlingtons partly responsible for Kentucky’s 12-0 record. Then again, that record also includes easy wins over Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina.
These Wildcats might be that good. Their talent is undeniable, and they augment it with energy. They contest every shot and pass, they’re on the floor after loose balls, they hit the boards in waves and they share the ball with surprising selflessness.
Marian Catholic grad Tyler Ulis, a freshman, typified the Wildcats’ effort with seven points, seven rebounds and six assists in 18 high-energy minutes. Such selflessness, Calipari said, is what makes it all work.
“We’ve got 11 guys sharing minutes,” he said. “That’s the story. If you were a parent and your son had NBA potential, would you be OK with him playing 20 minutes a game?”
If the Bulls had been waiting around for next on their court, it might have been interesting.
“In 24 years as a head coach, that’s the best team I’ve coached against,” Alford said. “They’ve got everything. There’s a reason they are where they are, and we weren’t ready for it.”
The undercard feel to the North Carolina-Ohio State skirmish extended beyond the 12 noon tipoff. North Carolina has not revisited the Final Four since its Tyler Hansbrough-led ’09 team laid waste to college basketball, earning a national title it could be forced to vacate if the players are found to have received fraudulent credit for sham courses that have embarrassed a proud university.
That’s to be decided. For now, early losses to Butler and Iowa, as well as a 14-point spanking by Kentucky, suggest the Tar Heels might be an afterthought in the national discussion, although Ohio State might disagree.
The Buckeyes are barely recognizable without 2014 graduate Aaron Craft, the rare four-year player whose tenure as OSU’s point guard seemed to last nine years. The famously gritty Craft might have given All-American Marcus Paige (16 points, four assists) a workout, but it’s doubtful that Craft or anyone not wearing a Kentucky uniform would have made much difference against a high-flying Tar Heels frontline that controlled the game from a vantage point well above the rim.
Brice Johnson, an ice-cream-cool 6-9 freshman, made 8 of 10 shots and had 18 points and nine rebounds. North Carolina’s slick ball movement was just as impressive, as assists accompanied 23 of 29 buckets.
The Buckeyes, by contrast, looked like plodders, though Young alum Sam Thompson had a nice day in his hometown, embellishing his 17 points with three emphatic dunks. His teammates shot 19-for-59 (32.2 percent), and OSU took a 53-40 beating on the boards.
Kentucky’s dominance aside, the day was not definitive, though it did offer five hours of entertaining basketball featuring four teams we’ll be seeing in March.
And not one mention of Jay Cutler. Nice.