Late-season losses turning points for UK, UConn

Cats went from 'crisis mode' to clutch contenders

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2011 

Late regular-season defeats served as turning points for Kentucky and Connecticut, two teams that will play in the national semifinals on Saturday.

Kentucky's turning point came after a 77-76 loss at Arkansas on Feb. 23. That game marked a fifth loss by two or fewer points and re-opened the question of whether the Cats were too young to make a deep post-season run.

Speaking on a teleconference for the four Final Four coaches on Monday, John Calipari recalled the scary upcoming schedule to finish the regular season: Vanderbilt, Florida and at Tennessee.

"They had a players-only meeting," he said of the UK players. "Normally, those meetings don't do anything. But I think they wanted to understand each other. The veterans talked about committing to what they had to do. The young kids committed to what they had to do. I think they just came together."

Calipari, who joined Rick Pitino as the only coaches to take three different schools to the Final Four, acknowledged his belief remains that meetings are of limited value.

"There's only one thing that brings about change within a team, and that's a crisis," Calipari said. "I don't think meetings do anything.

"If that meeting was brought about because of a crisis, and we're telling everybody, 'This ship is going down, folks, don't take this lightly. We have to change or we're going down.' That may (bring about) change."

Calipari said the Cats were in "crisis mode" after the Arkansas game. Since then, Kentucky has won 10 straight and displayed the kind of clutch play largely missing during the regular season.

Connecticut's turning point came in the final game of the regular season. The Huskies lost at home to Notre Dame 70-67 despite leading much of the way.

At the next practice, Coach Jim Calhoun saw something he didn't like. Instead of his usual "thought of the day" to start practice, he addressed what he saw.

"For the first time, I thought they looked down," he said of his players. "This team has not looked down. It's been amazing resilience for the entire ride all the way through. We're pretty good. We won 21 games. Knew we were going to the NCAA Tournament."

Then the loss to Notre Dame put UConn at a crossroads, and Calhoun acted early in that practice.

"The heck with this," he said. "We're not going to put our heads down. For the next two-and-a-half hours, the basketball wasn't as important as the activity, how physical we were with each other, how we really went at it and said we're going to it tomorrow. (We) weren't going to quit.

"We just attacked the new season."

The new season began with the Big East Tournament in Madison Square Garden. Connecticut won five games in five days, the last three victories coming by a total of 10 points.

"Let's go back to being the team we are and let's just play basketball," Calhoun said of his message at the pivotal practice. "Stop this worrying about everything else. You haven't worried for most of the year. ...

"No one on this team is going to quit. As a matter of fact, we're going to be even better. We're going to be a better basketball team by the time we get to play in New York."

Cal defends Jones

Terrence Jones made five of nine shots and scored 11 points against North Carolina. That seemed like a breakout, given that Jones had made only 22 of 68 shots in the previous seven games.

"What's happened is people are zeroing in on him ... and they're trying to make him give up the ball, which is a smart thing," Calipari said. "If they play him one-on-one, he's going to be able to get baskets."

Calipari also noted that Kentucky is playing better competition. "So now all of a sudden it's not so easy," the UK coach said.

"But he's a much better player than he was at the beginning of the year. He's in better condition. He's tougher. He's rougher."

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