Immaturity can kill the Cats, says Cal

Young squad still its own worst enemy

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 10, 2010 

John Calipari had sports psychologist and self-styled golf guru Bob Rotella speak to the Kentucky team about how to deal with temporary setbacks. "I'm doing everything in my power to get through to my very young team," Calipari told reporters on Tuesday.

With UK preparing for the Southeastern Conference Tournament later this week and then the all-important NCAA Tournament, maybe Calipari should quote the late cartoonist Walt Kelly. In commemorating Earth Day in 1970, Kelly drew a cartoon of a deforested patch of ground and applied a memorable caption: "We Have Met The Enemy and He Is Us."

That sums up Calipari's wariness as his freshman-oriented team enters the post-season. The Cats need to shrug off bad calls, wayward elbows and any other indignities. Or else risk an abrupt end to a successful season.

"There's only one thing that can affect us in any of these tournaments," Calipari said. "And that is us."

Not officiating. Not three-point shooting. Not free-throw shooting.

When Calipari spoke, DeMarcus Cousins' ears were burning.

"I believe that was for me," he said.

As recently as Sunday's regular-season finale against Florida, Cousins had trouble controlling himself. Curiously, he came out ahead of his teammates after the halftime break and plopped on the bench. He did not warm up with his teammates for the second half. Instead he stayed glued to the bench as UK coaches, one by one, appeared to try to counsel him.

When asked about this sequence after the game, Calipari deflected questions while acknowledging the exasperations that mount in a long season.

"I was hurt," Cousins said in explaining his halftime inactions. "I was getting beat up. Nothing was getting called."

Rather than rolling with the punches, if not literally then figuratively, Cousins continued to sound persecuted.

"I believe I'm getting better at it," he said before adding, "but I think it's getting worse."

Bad calls are among the annoyances that Calipari said he wanted the Cats to shrug off. With a confident swagger, he said, the players should keep in mind the ultimate factor in any game: winning.

"You want a player to expect to win," the UK coach said. "So that when things go awry, you're OK. I think that takes a mature person."

With a team that starts three freshmen and brings two other first-year players off the bench, Kentucky doesn't have a wealth of maturity.

"These kids are 19," Calipari said. "They don't know how to react as things get thrown at them. The good news is, we've been through just about everything, and we're still standing. And we've got a pretty good record."

But Calipari acknowledged that the 29-2 record Kentucky takes to the SEC Tournament is a mixed blessing. It all but assures UK of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it can also give the players 29 reasons to wonder about Calipari's emphasis on maturity.

"The problem with that is, do you really learn from these close (victories)," Calipari said. "Or do they really believe we're OK? He's just talking. He doesn't understand.

"That's my issue."

Calipari, who a few weeks ago said the SEC's regular-season championship meant "nothing," suggested the league tournament was one more dress rehearsal for the NCAA Tournament.

"We're trying to get ready and right," he said. "Physically and emotionally in every way so we go in and be our best."

With fresh legs and fresh minds and a competitive spirit, the Cats can handle whatever comes their way, Calipari said. Gracious in victory. Composed in defeat. But in either case, not complicating the task with fits of temper.

Freshman John Wall, newly crowned as the SEC Player of the Year, said he and Patrick Patterson planned to call a team meeting to discuss players' roles and the importance attached to this now-or-never moment in their basketball careers.

When asked whether Kentucky can gain a newfound maturity in the next week and then carry it through the emotional storms of an NCAA Tournament, Calipari offered no assurances.

"Boy," he said, "I hope so."

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