Kentucky should have learned some lessons against Tech. The Wildcats have to do a better job on the boards. They outrebounded a smaller Tech only 36-32 and Chuck Hayes (11) and Bobby Perry (7) had half of Kentucky's rebounds. They have to play better overall defense as Tech got nine first-half field goals inside the paint to keep the game close. They have to run the offense better, as they did in the second half when a 13-0 run broke open a close game.
They also have to learn to abide by team rules. For the first time this season, Smith had to discipline a player as center Shagari Alleyne, UK's most improved player this season, missed the game because of a "coach's decision." Smith said he had to learn to "take care of business" better.
That should be a warning for other players not to test the coach's rules, but also to realize that four easy wins over outmanned opponents does not guarantee future success at the level the Wildcats want.
The players with the most to gain Saturday will be freshmen Rajon Rondo, Ramel Bradley, Randolph Morris and Joe Crawford. They have all played well at times. Against Tennessee Tech, they combined for 30 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
But Coppin State, Ball State, Georgia State and Tennessee Tech are not North Carolina and the Dean Dome is not going to be nearly as friendly to the No. 8 Cats as Rupp Arena has been.
"Saturday's game will let them know how tough college basketball really is," Kentucky senior Josh Carrier said. "They'll have to learn that you can't get wrapped in the pregame hype. We can help get them ready, but they still have to experience a situation like this to learn what to expect."
Hayes is an All-American teammate
Of course, they could just watch teammate Chuck Hayes. He might not be a future All-American, but he certainly is an All-American teammate.
He had his third double-double of the season with 17 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and two steals in only 18 minutes. He was 5-for-5 from the field and 7-for-10 at the foul line.
Yet his numbers don't fully emphasize what he means to the Wildcats. He was assigned to Tennessee Tech's best offensive player and had a deflection and steal in the first three minutes. He scored on an offensive rebound and off a dunk. His rebound started a fast break that led to an easy basket for Patrick Sparks.
He also pulled off a defensive rebound, dribbled the length of the court and scored on a left-handed lay-up.
Seven minutes into the game, he had 10 points and six rebounds. He could have continued calling for the ball or even forced bad shots. Instead, he played within the system and didn't score again - or take another shot - until 23 minutes later. Part of the reason was that two offensive fouls forced him to the bench. But even when he was in the game, Hayes was content to play defense, rebound and pass rather than try to take bad shots.
"He had an All-American performance," Smith said. "He sets the tone every game. He's always ready to play."
Kentucky will find out if it is "ready" for a big-time challenge Saturday. The Cats have beaten North Carolina four straight times, a streak the home fans will want to end in Saturday's marquee game.
They'll find out at North Carolina if Rondo can blow by older, more experienced guards or disrupt their ballhandling with his aggressive defense. They'll find out if Morris can avoid fouls against experienced, talented players and still score and rebound. They'll find out if Sparks, Kelenna Azubuike and others can make 3-point shots against better defense.
"Tubby's got great kids. They'll be up and down, but they are different from last year because of the depth factor. They have more size and more players," Tennessee Tech coach Mike Sutton, a former assistant at Kentucky under Smith, said. "They could be pretty good down the road, but Saturday is going to be a real challenge for them."
Of course, that's the way it should be now that the real season is starting.