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By LARRY VAUGHT
KNOXVILLE Ã¢â‚¬â€ When his team was behind 19 points with 14 minutes to play, John Calipari figured it was going to be the perfect time for him to see how Kentucky might fare in NCAA Tournament play.
ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why even though his team 74-65 to Tennessee here Saturday, the UK coach was surprisingly upbeat after the game.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Down 19, you find out who you are. What I found out is that we are not bad,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Calipari after UK lost for only the second time this season. Ã¢â‚¬Å“To shoot 2-for-22 (from 3-point range) and tie the game 65-65, thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not bad.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Calipari called it a Ã¢â‚¬Å“great learning experienceÃ¢â‚¬Â for his team much like he did when the Wildcats lost at South Carolina last month. He was slightly appalled at UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lack of overall intensity to start the game or early in the second half. However, the final 14 minutes, he had no complaints.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We did not quit. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s all you can ask as a coach,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We did not make open shots. We left our feet and ran over somebody about six times. We had a couple of breakdowns that drove me crazy. We had a couple of guys that were asleep.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This was a great. Losing today will wake us up. This was a good thing.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Whether thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s right will depend on what the Cats learn from this game Ã¢â‚¬â€ and there were certainly things they should have learned.
Ã¢â‚¬â€ Defend inside better.
Tennessee had 42 points in the paint against the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s biggest team and one of the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s top shot blocking team. The Vols had 20 goals at point blank range off drives, fast breaks or follow shots.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was just breakdowns on defense,Ã¢â‚¬Â Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins, who had 15 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots, said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“
What caused the breakdowns?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Not being ready. Not being in position,Ã¢â‚¬Â Cousins said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“It was just a bad defensive effort.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬â€ Accept that the 3-point shooting is a problem.
The Cats were consistent Ã¢â‚¬â€ 1-for-11 in each half. That means in the last four games Kentucky is 12-for-73 from 3-point range and teams are just going to continue to dare the Cats to shoot outside. UK was 7-for-19 from 3-point range when it beat Tennessee earlier, but the same shots were not falling Saturday.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“You are what your stats say. You are what your record is,Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are not practicing long. Get in the gym and shoot. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s not our birthright to play. I am challenging them to see if they are tough enough to play.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Guard John Wall, who was 0-for-4 from 3-point range but still had 19 points, said the Cats can shoot.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just confidence. If you make them in practice, then you should make them in games,Ã¢â‚¬Â Wall said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“We are open. It seems like we are shooting scared.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬â€ The bench has to be more productive.
KentuckyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s depth is supposed to be a team strength yet the depleted Vols outscored UKÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s bench 20-5. Darnell Dodson, Ramon Harris, Daniel Orton and DeAndre Liggins were a combined 1-for-9 from the field in 34 minutes.
Dodson and Liggins did little to contribute and Calipari and Liggins seemed to exchange angry words once on the bench. Calipari even seemed to pointing to the dressing room when talking to Liggins during the game after he had made a defensive mistake.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I will probably play Ramon more and push other guys (Liggins and Dodson) back (in the rotation),Ã¢â‚¬Â Calipari said.
Ã¢â‚¬â€ Bring the intensity.
There are no second chances in the NCAA Tournament. Sleep walk for 26 minutes in a NCAA game like the Cats did here and the national titles hopes likely are ended.
Kentucky got pushed around by Tennessee. The Cats got beat to loose balls. They got outhustled on the fast break.
Maybe having to play a Thursday-Saturday game for the first time in SEC play was a factor, but doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t the NCAA Tournament feature a two games in three days format?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have to come out intense from the start,Ã¢â‚¬Â Wall said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Coach has told us all year to go hard every day. Some days we seem laid back. He (Calipari) said to imagine in two weeks if we lose and our season is over.Ã¢â‚¬Â
What about it Cuz?
Ã¢â‚¬Å“It wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t tough at all (to play Thursday-Saturday). We just came out with no energy. They hit us in the mouth and won,Ã¢â‚¬Â Cousins said.
They did. Tennessee could have folded after blowing the 19-point lead, but it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t. Instead, UK missed shots, blew defensive assignments and turned the ball over at inopportune times. Give Tennessee credit for holding on to the win much as it did when it beat No. 1 Kansas here earlier this season.
Yet for this to truly be a learning lesson for Kentucky, the Cats have to realize they really are not unbeatable.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“This brings us back down to earth. It lets us know we still have a lot of work to do,Ã¢â‚¬Â Cousins said.
And if thatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s true, then maybe this will turn out to be a good loss after all if there really is such a thing Ã¢â‚¬â€ and even now I have to wonder if Calipari really believes that.