By LARRY VAUGHT
How good can Kentucky be after getting off to just a 5-3 start? Let freshman Willie Cauley-Stein answer.
“We have the talent to be really special. It’s just how if we get this mindset right and start playing like killers, that’s the whole big picture of it. That will be the deciding factor if we get our minds right,” Cauley-Stein, who had a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, said.
Even though players don’t talk about the rankings, Cauley-Stein admitted finding out UK was the highest ranked team ever to completely drop out of the Associated Press ratings in one week was disturbing.
“It is a slap in the face because we are a lot better than what we have been playing. We played two good teams back to back and against Notre Dame we lost by double digits and Baylor it was single digits. So it is progressively getting better and better and we are going to keep doing that. It will take off from here,” Cauley-Stein said. “If we had come out in the beginning (of the second half) like we did in the first half, he (Calipari) would not have said anything about it. As a team we have to get a killer mindset from the get-go and start the second half like it is a new game. They could come back and beat us. Who knows. We have to come back with a killer mindset, and we didn’t do that.”
Kentucky had a 31-point halftime lead, but Calipari pleaded with his team at halftime to play with the same intensity it had the first half and to ignore the score.
“It is all that competitive mindset he is talking about. He told us at halftime that I don’t care about the score. I just want to see you all compete like it was the first half, and we didn’t do that,” Cauley-Stein, who had 11 points and 10 rebounds the second half, said. “You could tell on the bench he was yelling (to start the second half). Matter of fact, at the start of the second half he came over and gave all our stats that we were 1-for-9 (shooting) for the bench. He kind of lit us up as bench players and said if we are going to make it a long stretch in March, our bench has to be putting up at least 15 points collectively.”
Freshman forward Alex Poythress, who had 13 first-half points but only three in the second half, said the big lead was no excuse not to play well.
“You just have to play like you are down 30. That’s what he (Calipari) expects out of us,” Poythress said. “I feel like we could play a little bit more aggressive at times. Maybe at times we are still trying to figure things out instead of just playing. That could be it.”
Cauley-Stein noted his second-half surge had more to do with his ineffective play the first half.
“In the first half I didn’t play as much. I was making stupid mistakes and now he (Calipari) is holding people accountable and I didn’t play as much. My mindset going into the second half was who knows how long I will be out there, so I may as well go for it,” Cauley-Stein said. “When I am out there I don’t think about it (playing hard). I am just playing. He always tells us plays as hard as you can and then just sub yourself. That’s all you have to do. So once you get tired, you sub yourself. It’s that simple, but some guys don’t do it. That’s where we are now. We have a lot of conditioning (to come).”
Cauley-Stein said better practices produced the first-half surge tha even Calipari liked and probably hopes to see again Saturday when Kentucky hosts Portland.
“That is how we have been in the last two days of practice. Now you play how you practice. Now we just have to carry it over for 40 minutes. It is a building process. It is just beginning,” Cauley-Stein said. “We have only been at it for two days playing like this, so it is only going to get better from here.”