By LARRY VAUGHT
Maybe he was only trying to motivate his team as he insisted after the game. Or maybe, just maybe, Samford coach Ben Seltzer was just saying what other coaches and opposing players might be thinking.
Early in the first half of Tuesday’s eventual 88-56 loss to unranked Kentucky, Seltzer was overheard by a media member telling his team this was the “worst Kentucky team ever” even as the Wildcats were building a huge lead.
Kentucky was coming off back-to-back losses that dropped the Cats from No. 8 in the Associated Press rankings to being unranked — the biggest one-week fall in the AP top 25 ever. And Samford did come back to score 42 points the second half after managing just seven points the first 16 minutes of the game when UK took a 37-7 lead.
“I said they are not that good. I said a lot about this team, but it was all for motivation. I said they are human just like you,” said Seltzer after the game about what he said to his team about UK. “There is no need to go out there and be afraid. There are 24,000 people in the stands and not one of them can play defense so relax.So yes, it was all for motivation. Their still not as good as some of their other teams.”
Blunt, but true.
This UK team doesn’t have a John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Demarcus Cousins or Patrick Patterson like Calipari’s first UK team that lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight and was ranked No. 1 at one time. This team doesn’t have a Brandon Knight or veterans like Josh Harrellson, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins like the 2011 Final Four team had. This team doesn’t have an Anthony Davis or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the top two picks in the NBA draft, or an experienced Miller, Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb like last season’s national championship team had.
It has the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, a transfer from Wright State, one player with limited experience from last year, another transfer who sat out last year and has missed four games for personal reasons, and a former walk-on point guard playing key minutes.
“I think we all got intoxicated, including me, about everything that was written and said about this team. I kept telling you, ‘We’re not that good.’ I’m looking, ‘Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re better than I think. Huh-uh,’” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after watching Samford shoot 58.6 percent from the field the second half.
“I like my team. I like my players. I got good guys. They’re going to do what I ask them to do. If you demand a lot, you get a lot. If you accept mediocrity … Obviously, I’m accepting something less than their best, and that’s on me.”
So does he agree with Seltzer about this being the worst Kentucky team?
“Ooh. I haven’t seen all the Kentucky teams, but I can’t imagine there weren’t a few that were worse than us,” he smiled and said.
There were. A lot of UK teams were.
This team has talent. Freshmen Alex Poythress, Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Willie Cauley-Stein have all been projected as potential first-round draft picks. But something just is not clicking with this team for 40 minutes each game. That’s why Calipari is so frustrated that starting Thursday the team will run each day at 7 a.m. and then have its normal practice in the afternoon. He said lack of conditioning has to be the answer for UK’s lackadaisical defensive play the second half.
“We’re going to condition in the morning for the next three weeks and then practice because I can’t think of any other reason why you wouldn’t come out in the second half and play. I just don’t understand that. Especially what we’ve been going through (losing two straight games),” Calipari said. “You need to learn how to play a full game. They had that opportunity today. So we have to chalk it up to they’re not in shape.
“They will be. We’re going to be the most in-shape team inside the next three weeks. We’re going to condition in the morning, we’re going to practice in the afternoon. Don’t understand it.”
It’s only eight games into a long season, but one phrase Calipari uses about this team should be alarming to UK fans because it is to him.
“We just had no competitive spirit in those two games (Baylor and Notre Dame), no will. The way we played in the first half (tonight), we took these guys out. We played, blocked shots, took charges, played, like played basketball, competed against the other guy,” Calipari said. “In the second half we played like we did against Notre Dame and Baylor, which was, ‘If they beat you, they beat you. I didn’t get there.’ Can’t be anything other than that they’re not in shape.”
He wishes. What worries him, though, is that perceived lack of competitive spirit and will to win that he takes pride in his team having.
Seltzer noted that his team was outplayed from the beginning — UK did have six players in double figures and freshman Willie Cauley-Stein had the team’s first double-double of the season with 12 points and 12 rebounds. He also said he never meant to imply “these guys aren’t very good” and not to take what he was saying to his team out of context.
“This wasn’t a sense of ‘this team can’t play’ or ‘this is the worst Kentucky team ever’ this had nothing to do with Kentucky to be quite honest with you. I was just trying to motivate my team. I guess being a new coach I have to be careful with all these ears around, especially when you play here at Kentucky. They are a good team. They are a very good basketball team. Quote me on that,” Seltzer said.
Okay, he’s quoted.
But also note that while he said Kentucky’s play had a lot to do with his team’s 20 percent shooting the first half, he also noted that UK’s play had something to do with his team scoring 42 points in the second half. And he was right on both counts. Kentucky dominated an outmanned opponent — Samford is 2-8 — as it should the first half. The second half, Kentucky coasted and that’s why Calipari was once again infuriated and now is going to see if he can make his team physically and mentally tougher with those early morning runs.