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By ASHLEY SCOBY
It’s not always about if you win, but how you play the game.
UK coach John Calipari has come to the realization that this year’s basketball team has a much different style of play than any of the other teams he has coached.
“In the last seven or eight years, I’ve coached teams that have absolutely womped on people,” he said. “This ain’t one of them. Every game that we’re going to be in is going to be a dogfight, and instead of going crazy about it, how about just accept it, right? And coach that way. I can’t imagine this team being up 20 on anybody.”
After beating Vanderbilt by two points, losing to Texas A&M by 12 and now scrapping out a 75-65 victory against Tennessee, it seems that it’s been longer than two weeks since the Cats handed Eastern Michigan a 90-38 trouncing back on January 2.
How does Kentucky get back to that point?
“In time, I feel that way (whether UK can be a team that ‘womps’ other teams),” Nerlens Noel said after the win over the Volunteers. “But it’s a process. To get in the stage where we’re beating teams by 20, 30, it’s not right now… For the last couple weeks, Coach Cal has been really going back to something called gut time…In the crunch time of the game, we’ve really got to execute, not for ourselves but for the team. “
Noel has evolved into one of the players leading the team through that “gut time.” His energy has been visibly increasing from game to game, and his passion (especially after a crowd-pleasing dunk or volleyball-spike-style block) is obvious.
At one point in the second half of the Tennessee game Tuesday, Noel missed a free throw, hustled to get his own rebound and finished with a dunk, screaming out his excitement afterwards. That vocal leadership is something the Cats have been lacking this year.
Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays, the “veterans” of this team, are not necessarily jump-in-your-face, passionate kind of guys. Willie Cauley-Stein has the occasional chest pound after a dunk, but his vocal energy is not consistent. Alex Poythress has been the biggest subject of UK fans’ debate over whether this team “cares” or not – with his deadpan expression, Poythress strikes fear into the hearts of Big Blue Nation that one of their own does not have the passion for the game that they do.
But Noel, for all intents and purposes, is the commander of emotion on the court this year. Nearly every big play he makes is followed up by a chest pound, a guttural scream or an intense look at the TV cameras. He slaps his teammates’ behinds and stomps around the court with the look in his eye that coaches simply cannot teach.
“I’m definitely being more vocal with my team, and just making sure everyone is together,” he said.
“My” team, he said. Not “our” team or “the” team – “my” team. Noel is coming to understand that because of this team’s identity, his leadership must be more obvious. This is a team that will, like Calipari said, have to gut out tough wins, even if their talent level is higher than their opponent’s. That style of play requires an emotional player like Noel to light the fire under the rest of the team that helps put another “W” on the schedule.
With Noel’s emerging leadership and vocal power on the court, this team is making progress emotionally and mentally.
After that comes the “womping.”