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By LARRY VAUGHT
John Calipari really doesn’t want to be mean to his basketball team — or at least that’s what he said Tuesday night after admitting “I got mean” in the second half.
He insists he’s tired of coaching emotion, intensity, toughness. If his team won’t play tougher and with more effort, then he’ll concentrate on strategy.
Yet after beating South Carolina 77-55 Tuesday in a game that was only close after a 16-6 run gave South Carolina an 18-17 lead midway of the first half, the Wildcats are only one game behind Florida in the Southeastern Conference standings. The Gators — a team many think can contend for a national title — lost their first SEC game at Arkansas Tuesday. But Calipari’s team, despite all its struggles, is now 7-2 in league play.
“We don’t have to worry about position in the league. You guys know I am not worried about that stuff,” said Calipari. “Everything we’re doing is to try and improve ourselves and get better.”
Kentucky is doing that at times. The Cats shot 61.4 percent (27 of 44) from the field. They had five players in double figures, including Willie Cauley-Stein with 13 points and six rebounds in his first extended playing time since his knee surgery six games ago. Julius Mays continued his hot (4-for-5) 3-point shooting.
So why was Calipari so downcast?
“We had 17 turnovers and they didn’t press,” Calipari said. “They had seven turnovers. Again, that’s when you’re tough on the ball. Everybody who is catching is having a guy on him, is not breaking down. We don’t do that. Now, they play us that way and we turn it over and we don’t play the same. It’s competitive spirit. Get open in the post. If he’s open in the post, you get open in the post.”
He noted again that UK’s recent improvement has been due in large part to the way Kyle Wiltjer has energized the team in practice.
“Kyle is doing everything he can to help Alex Poythress talk, be emotional, smile. The whole practice he’s talking to Alex, and they’re playing the same position,” Calipari said. “Now my issue is, Alex, why aren’t you talking to anybody else? Is this a one-way street? We get you going. How about you get Jarrod (Polson) going? How about you get Ryan (Harrow) going? How about you talk?”
Poythress had nine rebounds, seven points and one block. Wiltjer had five points, six rebounds. But they also combined for seven turnovers.
Point guard Ryan Harrow was 6-for-6 from the field and had 12 points, four assists, two rebounds and just one turnover in 25 minutes. But he didn’t get a high grade from Calipari, either.
“Played okay. We need more emotion, more intensity, more touching,” Calipari said. “We’re talking to him all the time about the best point guards in the NBA and the best point guards in college basketball are always touching their teammates, just touch. I mean, physically, you touch them all the time. You’re always near them. You’re touching them. You’re talking to them. We’re trying to get them in that mode. It’s just not natural for him.”
However, South Carolina coach Frank Martin thinks Kentucky is a bit better than Calipari wants to let on, and getting better. In fact, he offered reasons for optimism when UK has to play at Florida next week with a chance to tie for the league lead if the Cats beat Auburn Saturday.
“Kentucky is playing a lot better offensively. It’s not fair for me to comment on how they’ve been playing in the past weeks because I haven’t watched a whole lot of them until two days ago. It just seems they are playing a lot better offensive,” Martin said. “It seems they have that size in the frontcourt and depth in the frontcourt. Florida really just relies on three guys. It’ll be interesting because (Erik) Murphy is going to stretch your fours and make your bigs come out and guard him.
“Kentucky has that depth on the front line, though. They can go bigger and stronger at the rim or they can go with (Kyle) Wiltjer and stretch you out. At any time you have (Nerlens) Noel back there that can create easy baskets during the course of the game. Guys get caught up in moment and think they can drive to the basket and score and he’s back there and is going to protect the rim as good as anyone in the country. Every blocked shot is a turnover.
“It will be an interesting game. Florida is mature; Kentucky is younger but (Calipari) is going to going to make these guys play their best. Whenever they say from here on in, the next game you play and don’t win, you lose, Kentucky is going to play their best game of the year. That’s what Cal does. It’s going to be interesting.”
Calipari has had a knack for getting teams to peak at the right time. He did it two years ago when UK came out of nowhere to reach the Final Four. He did it at Memphis. He did it at Massachusetts. Now he says he wants this team to have that “great joy” that comes with late-season success and knows for that to happen, the effort has to get better for longer periods.
“When you think of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist), you’re talking about kids that only cared about their teammates. Did what they had to do for themselves, but it wasn’t. They played for their team,” Calipari said reflecting on last year’s national title team. “The joy you get from that, the joy you get from coming together and doing something unique and special, I want this team to feel that joy, and that’s why I get frustrated at times.”