By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not easy for John Calipari to accept some things, but the Kentucky coach has come to realize there are certain things about his current team he must accept.
After his team lost to Texas A&M Saturday, he acknowledged that even though UK won the national championship last year, it was no luck to make the tourney this year if the Cats did not start winning more games.
After Tuesday’s 75-65 win over Tennessee, Calipari told UK fans to get used to a lot more close games this season.
“It was a good win for us, I’m happy with our guys, I came to this conclusion: In the last seven, eight years, I have coached teams that have absolutely womped on people, and this ain’t one of ‘em,” said Calipari. “And every game, we are going to be in is going to be a dogfight, and instead of going crazy about it, how about just accept it, right, and coach that way.
“I can’t imagine this team being up 20 on anybody, because you get up 12, 15, someone will try to steal a ball. They will foul. They will leave their feet. On an out-of-bounds play, one guy will not do what he’s supposed to, give up two layups. We are blocking every shot, so why would you grab arms when they dive in there? We are not trying to steal balls on drives, give ground, we just kept fouling, fouling, fouling.”
Kentucky has a team with individual talent that still has individual players struggling for consistency and that has kept the team from improving as rapidly as Calipari hoped.
For every plus, there seems to be a minus to offset it.
Against Tennessee, Kyle Wiltjer may have had his best all-around scoring game at UK. He had 17 points on 6-for-10 shooting along with five rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 26 minutes. He’s had better scoring games, but this time he was just 2-for-6 from 3-point range and found ways to score inside.
Julius Mays, who came to UK known for his shooting, hit two key 3-pointers late in the game to finally enable the Cats to separate from the Volunteers. And Nerlens Noel was his stat-stuffing self with 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks, four steals and two assists. He now has 44 steals in 16 games and has a shot at UK’s season record — 87 in 34 games by guard Rajon Rondo.
But on the minus side this game was Archie Goodwin, who was 2-for-10 from the field, made some bad decisions with the ball and fouled out with the game on the line. Alex Poythress had 10 points and eight rebounds — better numbers — but played only 24 minutes and Calipari said that was about eight minutes too many.
“I knew watching the tape that this would be close, and it was. I got upset a few times and about the 10 minute mark I got a little bit upset with a couple guys, but all in all, I told them after, the last eight years, winning 35 games a year, beating people by 30 … Well, this team is not capable of doing that,” Calipari said. “We are still learning to sustain effort and to trust each other. Then you can start becoming the team we want to be. Until then, we are going to be mired in the stuff we are in right now.”
The players know Calipari is trying to teach and motivate at the same time. Noel seems to have got his message better than anyone and seldom has an off night. Other players at times also played with more emotion — Poythress even gave Noel a chest block after he blocked a shot — and Calipari didn’t even have a problem with some of his players exchanging smack talk with Tennessee players.
“If there’s anybody that was getting sand kicked in their face, you know, at some point, you have to stand up. We don’t teach that. I’m not teaching it, but I know this: You put your heels in the sand, and you know, like if I see somebody talking to one of my players and they are not challenging back, I’m not happy,” Calipari said. “It’s not what I want, but I’m not — you’ve got to be a man. This is a man’s game and this is a man’s league we play in. You have to play through bumps. Quit crying about fouls. Everybody is fouling everybody.”
Maybe that’s another sign this team could be coming of age, and one positive to take from what was an ugly game at times — the teams combined to shoot 48 free throws.
But UK did outrebound Tennessee, who Calipari said is one of the better rebounding teams in the SEC, 34-30. Of course, part of that might have been because Jarnell Stokes played only 15 minutes — he still had five rebounds — and he’s a ferocious rebounder at times.
Kentucky also stopped the bleeding quicker than it has in other games. The Cats had a 47-39 lead with 13:34 to play before the Vols went on an 8-0 run. But that was better than the 18-0 run UK allowed at Vanderbilt when it had a 47-31 lead. And when the Cats got a 61-56 lead with 5:04 left on the first of Mays’ two 3-pointers, it put the game away thanks to another trey by Mays and two scores by Wiltjer off plays he asked Calipari to run.
That gave UK a win it desperately needed going into games at Auburn Saturday and Alabama Tuesday. Win both and UK could maybe gain back some confidence it lost when it fell to Texas A&M.
“In time I feel that we can womp teams. Right now, it is a process and we have different types of players,” Poythress said. “We can beat teams by 20 and 30, but not right now. We have to stay patient and keep working to that point. We really need to mesh together on the court, and play together at all times. We have to step up communication, defensively, and have each other’s back.”
But even then, Calipari knows he’s probably right to say this team won’t dominate SEC foes and the wins like the ones over Vandy and Tennessee are the kind of games UK will have to grind out this year because this group won’t be doing any womping.