Apparently, Kentucky Coach/Promoter/Salesman John Calipari has yet to close the deal with his players. So maybe the much-hyped Camp Cal is what it will take to get the Cats behind the wheel of a 2013 Contendership.
Again and again, Calipari has pushed for greater effort, passion and competitiveness.
"It's more we're hearing what he's saying, but I don't think it's been full bought into yet," senior Julius Mays said after UK beat Portland Saturday.
That's where Camp Cal comes in. Three weeks of pre-dawn wakeup calls and extra conditioning is supposed to give the players a whiff of that the irresistible new-team aroma. In the next three weeks, Kentucky only plays a game each Saturday, thus creating plenty of time for buy-in.
Saying that his team presently was ranked no better than 50 to 100, Calipari made any alternative sound like, ugh, public transportation: the NIT.
"If we're in the NIT, it's a good run to New York," he said (presumably) facetiously.
According to Jerry Palm, who does his own Ratings Percentage Index for CBSSports.com, Calipari's 50-to-100 estimate was correct. Palm had UK at No. 84 as of Monday.
But fated to play in the NIT?
"That's his opinion," Nerlens Noel said. "We're not as good as we should be right now. But we've been putting in the work and we're definitely willing to make strides."
The NIT reference alarmed Mays. "If it doesn't touch everybody a certain way, then I'm obviously worried about it," he said. "But for him to say that. ... everyone respects him enough, and he knows what he's talking about. And for him to say that means a lot. I think everybody has the notion that we want to get pushed and whatever it takes, because we want to be that top 10 team."
Calipari suggested that Kentucky had the potential to be a top 10 team.
"Definitely," Noel said. "We've definitely got the potential. We've got the players, the pieces, the coaching staff. We've got all the great tools. We've just got to work on some things and really bring it all together."
Portland Coach Eric Reveno joined a chorus of observers who see Camp Cal as part of a familiar process. Most teams (all teams?) go through a process to find an identity and a rallying principle.
That Kentucky is a freshman-dependent team only steepens the climb toward a fully-formed unit.
"It's always harder than freshmen think it is," Reveno said, "so it's always an adjustment."
But the Portland coach agreed with Noel that Kentucky has the basic building blocks of a good team. Noting that this time of the season presents a glass half full/half empty dichotomy, Reveno said, "You know, from my perspective, their glass is overflowing. So they will be fine."
Before Kentucky beat Portland, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas put Camp Cal in the context of a long-term process that all teams undergo. The coach seeks to focus and unite the players. "Not anything earth-shattering," he said.
Bilas recalled a moment in the movie The Godfather where Sonny declares a pivotal moment for the family by saying it's "time to go to the mattresses."
Said Bilas: "Every team at some point goes to the mattresses."
Kentucky, 6-3, next plays Saturday against Lipscomb, a 4-4 team that lost its last two road games — at Ole Miss and Belmont — by 45 and 34 points, respectively.
As Willie Cauley-Stein suggested a week ago, the past can distract from the present.
"We're trying to uphold expectations we shouldn't have had," he said. "We're not last year's team."
Calipari has spoken about various playing styles: Going big, going small, pressing, using a zone. But, he's also said that the answer he seeks is not in schemes. It's about zeal.
Cauley-Stein sounded like a believer.
"He's an expert at what he does," he said of Calipari. "So I'm sure whatever he does is going to work."
But to hear Calipari, it's more about what the Cats do.
Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this story. Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com