Calipari signals trip west could be rough

With big-time opponents on horizon, coach expresses concern about how cats will respond

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 19, 2010 

Kentucky Coach John Calipari instructed Eloy Vargas during UK's game against East Tennessee State last week. Calipari said his team will learn a lot from its early-season road trip.


Geographically speaking, Kentucky's kiddie Cats headed west Wednesday on a four-game trip. But in Calipari-speak, UK was heading south, as in hold on tight because a downturn looms straight ahead.

The other teams are older and more experienced, UK Coach John Calipari said before he and his team headed to Portland for Friday night's tuneup for next week's Maui Invitational.

"We're going to be broken," he said, meaning tested. "There are going to be things that happen. They'll look over at me and I'll say, 'I don't know. Just make a play. That's where we are."

Where Kentucky is figures to be knee deep and sinking into a morass of self discovery, according to Calipari, who again used a sweat-strained reference to describe his worry about having a freshman-oriented team. This time, he said, he broke out in a "death sweat" while watching veteran teams like Ohio State, Florida, Michigan State and "even South Carolina" on Tuesday night games.

Calipari said he calmed his nerves by switching to the History Channel. "World War II was on," he said. "Good stuff."

Looking ahead, Kentucky faces more experienced teams — who isn't a more experienced team? — in Portland, then on to Maui to play Oklahoma, Virginia or Pac 10 favorite Washington, then perhaps No. 2 Michigan State.

"We're OK," Calipari said. "Not great. Not awful."

The Cats are gaining experience, but are now due to play teams further along the learning curve. The games Tuesday night reminded Calipari of this as he watched other teams running plays, rotating on defense, pressing in a coordinated way and scoring on out-of-bounds plays.

"What?!" he said. "We don't have (out-of-bounds plays) in yet. That's when we just turn the TV off."

Whatever happens, the experience figures to do Kentucky good. Calipari voiced that message when meeting with reporters Wednesday.

"One of them is getting knocked down by a team you should beat because you weren't ready to play," he said of the experiences UK needs. "You think at halftime, you can turn it on. But it's too late. So that's an experience they have to deal with.

"Another is playing a better team, better because they've been together three years. How do you play? You have to take better shots. You must scramble. You must play harder. You can't play loosey-goosey."

UK players who spoke with reporters Wednesday noted the bonding experience that can come with such a trip. It will be a week in unfamiliar surroundings.

Josh Harrellson recalled the trip to Cancun, Mexico, last November. The UK players (and the traveling party) were restricted to the resort. "We all went out to eat as a team," he said.

Noting the one-and-done nature of Kentucky's program, Harrellson all but predicted the need for bonding each and every season.

"From here on out, it's just going to be a new team year after year," he said. "They'll have to re-do the whole thing over and over. They'll have to try to bond as a team. If they do, they're going to be successful. If not, it's going to be a rough season."

For this season, Harrellson saw a willingness among the players to depend on a collective effort.

'"The more you're around somebody, the better you get to know them," he said. "It's kind of like a quarterback and tight end running extra reps after practice. You get in trouble, you know he'll be there."

This trip will expose Kentucky's strengths and weaknesses, Harrellson said. From that starting point, the Cats will be staring at the need to bond.

"If you let losses get to you, and we fall apart and splinter, it's not any good," Harrellson said of any hypothetical defeats. "I don't think Coach Cal will let that happen."

Harrellson meant Calipari would not let team unity dissolve.

As for preventing a loss or two, the UK coach did not sound so powerful.

"We could be — wow, I hope we're not — 1-4 when we get back," Calipari said. "But we could be."

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