By LARRY VAUGHT
Even though he says he’s still “trying to figure some stuff out” before settling on a starting lineup and “tinkering with different combinations,” Kentucky coach John Calipari says one thing has not changed about his team since last week’s Blue-White Game.
“We’ve just got a long way to go. Defensively, we’re just awful right now. We don’t stay in front of anybody, we got guys stopping left and right and think it’s OK, or ‘It wasn’t my man and stuff like that,’” Calipari said Wednesday.
Kentucky will host Northwood, a NAIA team, tonight in its first exhibition game at Rupp Arena. Northwood played Michigan State earlier.
“The greatest thing about playing a team like this — No. 1 team in the NAIA, a team that was down six to Michigan State at half, that made nine threes, has some post-up game and has a quick guard — is the weakness, or the things that we’re not doing well will be glaring,” the Kentucky coach said. “As much as I don’t like to play a team this good this early, you know this is going to be great for this team because the more I’m watching tape, the more I’m seeing they’ve got to change and they’ve got to understand it’s got to be a habit.”
With the tinkering Calipari has done with lineups in preseason practices, he’s got a glimpse of the versatility this team could have.
“Maybe put five guys, they’ve got it rolling, and leave them out there for eight minutes before you do anything, let them get their run through and then make a couple substitutions, call a timeout. I don’t know until we start playing,” he said.
After the Blue-White Game, Calipari’s players insisted they understood it would take patience, listening to the coaching staff and plenty of hard work to turn the young squad into a solid team by tournament time. Calipari says UK’s first two regular-season opponents — Duke and Maryland — both have solid seniors. So does Transylvania, the team UK will host Monday in its second exhibition game, and Norwood.
“Maryland and Duke, they’re going to exploit every weakness we have and know you come back, show the tape and say ‘If we want to win, these are things we’re going to have to do.’ Let’s go. We’ve just got a long way to go,” the UK coach said. “I think it’s more hard work than patience. It’s more of a focus on what you’re doing than patience. It’s more taking care of your body, getting your rest, taking care of business off the court, no distractions. That’s what’s going to get us to where we want to go. The one guy that has to have patience is me, and that only will go so far with me, I know.”
Still, Calipari has seen enough to know that he still likes his new team.
“Kyle Wiltjer has gotten way better. Ryan Harrow’s way better. The young kids are coming along and doing good. Jon Hood is way better. Jarrod Polson, way better. They’re just, they’re better,” Calipari said. “Now, (we’re) getting out on the court against a team that’s not going to stop till the possession (ends), that will try to offensive rebound every ball, that will block you out if you don’t do stuff. All those things will come to light in this thing. You’re going to say, ‘Oh my gosh, he just turned his head, look, and the guy went in and dunked on him. Oh my gosh.’ Well, if you watched our tape, there’s many of those right now. But that’s, when you’re talking young guys, that’s what you have.”
Calipari admitted he was “tired” from thinking of ways to help his team improve before it opens the season Nov. 9 against Maryland in Brooklyn.
“I’m having more individual meetings than I’ve had collectively since I’ve been the coach here already. And what are we in, 21 days of practice? But that’s what this team needs, and that’s fine. I’m here for them,” Calipari said. “Sometimes I have to do a little bit more. Sometimes I can do a little bit less, depending on the team. But I like my team. I think we will be good in time. We’re just, it’s kind of scary. I know you’ll say, us getting dinged (beat) is not the worst thing. I’m telling you, for these guys to understand, let’s get back down to this and understand you’ve got to listen, you’ve got to create habits. You don’t have them right now.”
Calipari did make one adjustment for tonight’s game. No one will foul out as players can have unlimited fouls like DeAndre Liggins did two years ago when Calipari joked he nearly had a triple-double — 10 points, nine assists and nine fouls.
“It’s not because I want them to foul. I know they’re going to charge. I know they’re going to reach. I know they’re going to leave their feet, because those are their habits right now. Well, I can’t have, ‘OK, now you can’t play anymore this exhibition game.’ I can’t do it,” Calipari said.