COLUMN: Cats need to avoid early-season loss

Half of a second. It was the amount of time standing between UK and a potential third consecutive season suffering an early upset.

Instead, John Wall hit a heroic jumper in his debut to begin the chain of averted disasters for the particular group of Cats.

Say the words Gardner-Webb or VMI around these parts and you see cringes litter the faces of fans, remembering seasons that started off on the wrong foot.

An early season loss to Miami (OH) could’ve changed the pulse of the season, but it didn’t.

Last year, UK’s youthful and abysmal defense at the perimeter offered up a handful of opportunities to fall early, but they didn’t.

This team has the same youthfulness and each season has its fair share of chances to trip up early.

The Cats have already dodged one snare, as the season opener featured East Tennessee State University, a team that made last year’s NCAA tournament and returned its starting lineup. Luckily for the Cats, ETSU was without their leading scorer Friday.

There’s no time to get complacent. A 23-point win is good, but no matter how much people want to idolize last year’s team, that particular group had a tendency to show an inability to put its foot on the throat of opponents after building a lead. This team’s size and inability to rebound demands that it take advantage of every point they put on the board. Gone are the days where the frontcourt will swallow up every rebound in its vicinity.

The Maui Invitational is the biggest roadblock between this team and getting off on the right foot. Last year’s team, which would reach a No. 1 ranking and a top seed in the NCAA tournament, would stumble their way through a tournament in Mexico before barely beating Stanford (a team that finished the season 14-18) in overtime.

The Maui Invitational isn’t the Busch League. It won’t be played in a ballroom on a bumpy court. It’s also likely one of the biggest reasons behind multiple outlets’ acknowledging UK as having a top-10 strength of schedule. The tournament hosts the likes of No. 2 Michigan State and No. 17 Washington, as well as Connecticut, a legitimate Big East contender.

Winning the Maui invitational may be a tall order for a team with as much youth as UK, but making a deep run is essential for morale. Losing to Oklahoma in the opening round won’t have this team in the right headspace with a turnaround that has them facing North Carolina and Notre Dame within a four-day span.

Losses are inevitable, and to expect this team to enter conference play unscathed is beyond unrealistic, but that doesn’t mean certain losses are “better” than others. A team with this much youthfulness just needs to win the games its supposed to in the early stages of the season and hope a few breaks fall its way. Until the field expands to 96 teams, the games in November really do count.

Matt is a journalism senior. E-mail mmurray@kykernel.com or follow him on Twitter @KernelMurray.