Calipari expects redemption from veterans after 2011 Final Four exit

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 27, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

Before going to the 2012 Final Four, Kentucky Coach John Calipari wants to talk to his players about the 2011 Final Four.

"Something got us off-kilter because we didn't play very well," Calipari said Tuesday of the 56-55 loss to Connecticut in last year's national semifinals. "What happened was that we went out — I don't want to say gun shy — but we just weren't the same team that left New Jersey."

Kentucky rolled into the 2011 Final Four on the momentum created by victories over No. 1 seed Ohio State and North Carolina in the Newark-based East Regional. Then the Cats shot a season-low 33.9 percent and made only four of 12 free throws in the not-as-close-as-the-final-score-suggested loss to UConn.

Calipari said he knew quickly that Kentucky wasn't itself against UConn, which had battered the Cats on Maui earlier in the season and boasted the best player on the floor in guard Kemba Walker.

"About five minutes in," the UK coach said. "We've got some guys (he widened his eyes in an exaggerated fashion) that weren't the same."

With Kentucky about to play archrival Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday, Calipari said the Cats' veterans should benefit from the 2011 experience.

"It was the first time for those guys," he said of UK's first Final Four since 1998. "Now ... obviously, they're going to be fine."

Calipari noted how veterans Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones can ease this season's freshmen into the Final Four ambience.

"How are they going to take these young kids (and tell them) to watch the land mines?" Calipari said of the conversation he planned to have with the veteran players.

Miller did not need reminding of the loss to UConn.

"We didn't play as well as he thought we should have," he said. "And they did a great job of taking advantage of it."

Holdover players took the loss into this season, Miller said.

"Not winning the championship messed with us," he said. "It lingered in the back of our minds."

Unlike last season, which included six road losses in Southeastern Conference play, Kentucky has been steady. Despite relying on four freshmen in its seven-man rotation, the Cats have not had the kinds of ups and downs that might have indicated an upcoming dip against UConn.

"They come every day in practice," Calipari said. "They come every day with great focus."

The UK coach said he's lightened the load, not calling for marathon practices or film sessions.

"We're not burying them," he said before noting the objectives as "fresh legs, fresh minds, and then go for it."

On his call-in radio show Monday night, Calipari suggested a simple and direct question to the players that explained Kentucky's steady play this season:

"What do you do to help us win when you're not making shots? That's why we've been steady."

In speaking with reporters Tuesday, Calipari explained the purpose behind the question.

"What it does (is) it gets them to examine their games," he said. "Are you just here trying to score points? Or are you here to try to help us win?

"When you're not making a basket, you tell me? It's (a question) left unanswered. And that's what I want them to think. That's what I want them to be."

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist epitomizes a one-man multiple-choice answer to the question, Calipari has suggested. The freshman pops up everywhere. He rebounds, defends and makes winning plays.

"One of my favorite players to watch because he plays so hard," Louisville Coach Rick Pitino said on Monday. "When I watched him in high school, I'd never seen too many high school players play every possession as if they were down 10 (points). He's a very unique player."

Marquis Teague and Miller, two of the players made available to reporters Tuesday, had answers for Calipari's question.

"I distribute the ball," Teague said. "Be a leader. Pressure the ball on defense."

Miller, whom Calipari said had returned to the form that won him the Most Valuable Player award in the 2011 SEC Tournament, noted multiple contributions beyond scoring.

"I try to do a little bit of everything," he said. "Getting somebody else looks or playing defense. Whatever (Calipari) asks."

Going into this Final Four week, Calipari planned to ask the veterans to help their teammates learn from last year's stumble against UConn.

Lamb said confidently that there would be no repeat of that defeat.

"We have a way better team this year," he said. "Every position is talented. We all can score."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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