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By LARRY VAUGHT
Even before the season started Kentucky coach John Calipari talked about the potential his team, which was ranked No. 1 in the preseason, had. He noted UK might have seven players capable of scoring 25 points in a game and didn’t openly discourage talk of his team going 40-0.
And don’t forget how often Calipari has talked about putting players into the NBA — which he has done exceptionally well — along with winning the 2012 national championship.
Yet after the Wildcats beat Mississippi 80-64 here Tuesday night, Calipari noted how his team was the most “overanalyzed team he had ever seen in the history of the game at any level in any sport.”
He cited the weekly updates on “what we are and what we are not” and that UK’s losses “are worse than any other loss in the country.” He pointed out that LSU had “three NBA players” along with two veteran guards and yet the Cats dropped from 11th to 18th in the AP poll — a move Calipari said he predicted to his coaches — after last week’s road loss.
“This team has to deal with all that. It’s hard to play here,” Calipari said. “You have a bad game, you can’t play any more. You go from a great player to you stink in one game.”
However, he said that’s one reason UK players tend to go to the NBA and do well.
“They can deal with all the crap,” Calipari said.
Whatever the reason, UK outscored the Rebels 45-30 the second half by dominating the game inside behind the play of Willie Cauley-Stein, one of those players who went from great to “you stink” during a recent funk that even had Cauley-Stein wondering what was wrong.
“At Missouri (Saturday) I was mad because I was almost back home and wanted to play good and was just too antsy and that threw my timing off,” Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots, said. “This game I was more relaxed and doing what I could do.”
Calipari said UK was getting better and particularly liked the 41-26 rebounding edge that included 15 offensive rebounds by six different players led by five by Cauley-Stein and three by Alex Poythress.
“This is a tough team to play. They were tied with us for a reason (in the SEC),” Calipari said. “It will be a different game down there (when the teams play at Ole Miss). It will be a war.”
Kentucky had five players score in double figures for the first time since Nov. 29. Poythress continued to be solid with 10 points — and a highlight dunk — and seven rebounds. Aaron Harrison was 5-for-10 from the field and had 16 points, six rebounds and two assists. Julius Randle overcame a shaky first half — Calipari didn’t start him the second half — to finish with 12 points and five rebounds.
Kentucky goes on the road now to play at Mississippi State and Auburn — two games it should win — before hosting Florida Feb. 15 on ESPN GameDay. That’s when the chatter will really go up — win or lose — about the Cats and Calipari said the scrutiny takes a toll on his young team.
“They’re 18 and 19 years old. This is the youngest team in the country to play at this level maybe ever. Yeah, it affects them. I tried to tell them. I said, you think it’s opinion (by a media member). Most cases it’s the hope of the writer. It’s not their opinion; it’s their hope. Don’t deal with it. You can’t let it affect you,” Calipari said.
“I told some of them, they came into practice really excited after Missouri. Are you excited because we won? You can’t be that way. You’re excited because you want to get better. You’ve got to be excited if we get dinged and we lose a game. You’ve got to come in with an excited level. I told them if you think every game you’re going to play you’ve got to follow it with the win, you’ve got to learn to deal with adversity, and we’ve had some this year.”
But this was a game where UK dealt with the first-half adversity and responded by dominating play the second half any way you want to analyze it.