Kentucky using No. 1 ranking as motivation

Coach's drills keeping minds off ranking

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 1, 2011 

  • Thursday

    St. John's at Kentucky

    When: 7:30 p.m.

    Records: St. John's (4-3); Kentucky (6-0)

    TV: ESPN2

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

    Series: Kentucky leads 10-5

    Last meeting: St. John's won 62-61 on Nov. 9, 2000, at the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York.

No resting on this week's laurel: a No. 1 ranking. Just the opposite from hard-charging Kentucky Coach John Calipari.

"The last two days, I beat the team up pretty good," Calipari said Wednesday of this week's practices. "We went longer than usual. ...

"I've been tough on them. Not in a mean way, but raising the bar to get them to forget all about the other stuff. We're worried about getting better. That's all we're worried about is getting better. Forget the rankings."

The No. 1 ranking, which Calipari said was not a burden but a badge of honor, is also a target. First to take aim is St. John's on Thursday night in Rupp Arena.

Calipari cited offense as an area in need of improvement. The Cats haven't been "in sync" this early season, he said.

"I like my team," he said. "I wouldn't want to have anybody else's team. But I will tell you we have a long way to go as individual players and as a team."

UK freshmen Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague echoed the coach's view of the No. 1 ranking: flattering but meaningless in the long-term goals of this season.

When asked if the ranking removed the no-respect card UK had been playing at times this season, Davis balked.

"Not at all," he said. "Everybody is playing with a chip on his shoulder."

Chip? How can there be a chip when the media and college coaches both made Kentucky No. 1 in their weekly polls?

"Because everybody is coming out to beat us," Davis said.

St. John's has beaten a No. 1 team five times, the most recent coming in a defeat of Georgetown in 1984-85.

St. John's bills itself as the youngest team in the country. Only 3.7 percent of last season's scoring returned. The only player with Division I experience is Malik Stith, a 5-foot-11 guard.

Assistant Coach Mike Dunlap, who will guide the Red Storm in place of the convalescing Steve Lavin, noted that this will be his team's first game on the opponent's court.

"Our job is to have a clean strategy, a simple strategy and remain positive," Dunlap said. "Regardless of a call, regardless of the team turning the ball over, we have to try to figure it out for them. 'OK, here's our lesson learned.'"

Dunlap dismissed the notion that St. John's will be playing Kentucky at a good time. Less than 36 hours later, UK tips off against No. 5 North Carolina in a much-anticipated early-season competition of college basketball blue bloods.

"Cal's displeased with some things," Dunlap said. "He knows what to be displeased with. He'll have those guys ramped up. Cal is a superior motivator. So, no, he's too wily. He's too veteran to let his players have that mind- set. They'll be after us right from the tip."

In downplaying the No. 1 ranking, Calipari noted how much his freshman-oriented team still must learn. He noted how Tuesday's practice included drills in how an offensive player should handle being trapped by more than one defender.

"You'd think every player would understand how to play against a trap," he said. "... You'd think they'd know. They don't."

So the coach and players learn through trial and error as the season unfolds.

"You can't cover it all till you see in a game (what needs to be covered)," Calipari said. "'Uh oh, we don't know how to play a three-point shooter when he comes off a screen.' ... There are things that will hit every game."

Meanwhile, Calipari refuses to relinquish an underdog role even if the No. 1 ranking presumably makes Kentucky the over-dog against any team. The no-respect card hasn't been discarded.

"A lot of people were saying last night's game (between Ohio State and Duke) decided No. 1 for next week," the UK coach said. "I don't have to say stuff. In this world we live in, anybody says anything. It's out there in cyberspace.

"So they read it all. I don't even have to (say anything)."

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