Cal welcomes a learning experience

Young Cats have a big day with No. 12 Vols, TV show

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 13, 2010 

After practice Thursday, former Tennessee All-American Bernard King tried to motivate the Volunteers for the game at rival Kentucky on Saturday.

"Listen up, guys," King said according to a Twitter post by sportswriter Wes Rucker of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We don't lose to Kentucky. You hear me? We're not losing to Kentucky."

King then added, "I'll be there with you. We'll do what we have to do, because we're not losing."

King's comments amused UK Coach John Calipari. "I can remember him getting 50 on one leg in New York," Calipari said of one of King's highlight games for the Knicks. "Like, ridiculous. If he plays in this game, he's right. We'd have no shot."

But, of course, King won't be playing for the Vols. His college career ended in 1977. Or more than a decade before any of the current Cats were born. So King was a mystery to UK players.

"They asked, who is Bernard King? What number is Bernard King?" Calipari said on Friday. " 'I'm guarding him.' "

Yes, Kentucky players have a lot to learn. But the team's 23-1 record (league-best 8-1 in the Southeastern Conference) suggests the Cats can teach some lessons, too.

Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl compared Kentucky favorably to Calipari's 2008 Final Four team at Memphis.

"It's a much more physically imposing team," Pearl said. "They block a gazillion shots and lead the nation in rebounding. They've got four players ranked in the NBA mock drafts anywhere from one to 20. That means they have four, maybe five, first-round draft picks. There weren't four first-round draft picks (on the Memphis team). There was Derrick Rose and there were some other terrific players. But this team is much more talented than that Memphis team was."

Calipari called the Cats a "work in progress," a team he said had several players who were only six months removed from the carefree days of AAU competition.

"We're immature," he said. "We're not experienced. We turn it over too much. Time and score at times are not a factor. ... That's who we are. But I still love my team."

In the latest NCAA statistics, Kentucky ranked 265th among 334 Division I teams in average number of turnovers.

Calipari turned that potential negative into a positive by noting, "It's the reality of playing so aggressively, keeping people on their heels. People aren't going to be able to deny as much as they'd want because we're running it up your throat. ...

"If that means a few more turnovers, I'd rather have that than less athletic, less speed."

With ESPN College GameDay giving the game a national stage, Kentucky faces a multitude of potential distractions: 9 p.m. start making for a long day of waiting; buzz surrounding two ranked teams (UK No. 3 and UT No. 12 in The Associated Press poll).

Calipari dismissed the suggestion that the last time UK had a distracting day (the call from President Barack Obama prior to playing at South Carolina), the Cats lost. Two days later, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings encouraged Obama to call UK again before his Commodores played in Rupp Arena.

"I don't think that had anything to do with how we played," Calipari said. "Some of it was South Carolina and how they played and how the little kid (Devan Downey) played to finish the game."

But Calipari suggested Tennessee was better equipped to deal with GameDay distractions. The Vols beat No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10. UT's veterans played in a GameDay setting at No. 1 Memphis in 2008.

"It's an edge," Calipari said. "They're talking about we beat the No. 1 team in the country, now let's beat the No. 2 team (in the coaches' poll)."

Advantages and perceived slights aside, Calipari welcomed the chance to see his team play in a highly publicized game.

"It's a good thing because you want to see when it's time to step up who steps up and," Calipari said before dropping his voice to a whisper, "who steps back."

Returning to normal volume, the UK coach said, "The only way to find out is in a game like this."

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