Calipari says Cats' newfound success a test of maturity

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 26, 2013 

  • Mississippi State at Kentucky

    When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

    Records: Miss. St. 7-19 (2-12 SEC), UK 19-8 (10-4)

    Series: Kentucky leads 88-20

    Last meeting: Kentucky won 73-64 on Feb. 21, 2012, at Starkville, Miss.

    TV/radio: WKYT-27; WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

John Calipari's parting shot to reporters Tuesday summed up Kentucky's past, present and possibly bright future.

After noting the resilience shown by a team largely dependent on freshmen, devoid of much experience, then roiled by the absences of its point guard (Ryan Harrow), its 7-footer (Willie Cauley-Stein) and finally "the heart of the team" (Nerlens Noel), Calipari saluted his players.

"We're still standing," he said, "so I'm happy. Now, it's where do we go from here?"

With that, Calipari was off to practice. Unlike Lot's wife, he did not turn around.

Kentucky found its footing with victories over Vanderbilt and Missouri last week after the shock of a 30-point loss at Tennessee in its first post-Noel game. UK reappears Wednesday night against Mississippi State. Make that lowly Mississippi State as in bottom of the s-e-a as well as SEC.

For Calipari, Mississippi State's humble profile (a school-record 12 straight losses and last place in the Southeastern Conference), carries a sobering reminder.

"A week ago, where were we?" he asked. "A week ago, we were in coffins. People were trying to nail them shut.

"Now, all of a sudden, we're, like, OK. Wow! Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don't have the maturity or toughness. Do you still have that mental toughness to come in and battle?"

State, 7-19 overall and 2-12 in the league, provides an acid test. The Bulldogs rank last among SEC teams in such statistical categories as scoring points, preventing points, field-goal defense, three-point accuracy, rebound margin, assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. From a national perspective, State is outside the top 300 of Division I teams in points (No. 326), shooting (311), three-pointers (318), rebound margin (304), assists (336), assist-to-turnover ratio (344) and turnovers (337).

In other words, Kentucky has much to lose and little to gain as a newly minted resurrected team.

"You say we've starting clicking," Calipari said in repeating the premise of a reporter's question. "We had the maturity to say, let's take advantage of this, now. Let's see if we have that maturity to take advantage of the position we're now in versus the position we were in seven days ago (or) eight days ago."

Kentucky, 19-8 overall and 10-4 in the SEC, is thinking about an NCAA Tournament bid, although Calipari repeated his contention that the selection committee will use a "bell curve" in determining bids. No matter the quality of teams from a historic perspective, the bracket must be filled.

"People with an 'F' will get in and pass the class," he said.

Guard Jarrod Polson acknowledged the good Kentucky did for itself by beating Missouri in overtime on Saturday.

"That's probably our best win to date," he said. "So I definitely think that helped a lot."

With a No. 38 Ratings Percentage Index, Missouri is the best team (No. 46) Kentucky has beaten.

"But I don't think that puts us in or puts us out," Polson said. "Or whatever. Hopefully, that'll help us."

Indisputably, the victory over Missouri showed that Noel's season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament did not pull the plug on Kentucky's ability to compete.

"We beat a really good team without him," Polson said. "That shows we're not a bad team just because Nerlens got hurt."

Of course, Kentucky traditionally shoots for a higher standard than not-a-bad-team. So does this Kentucky team.

Calipari suggested that Kentucky's status as an elite program brings a more intense scrutiny. He noted that some observers — which he dismissed on his weekly radio show Monday night as "talking heads" — had put importance on a victory over Missouri. Now that Kentucky got that victory, the observers moved the bar UK must clear higher.

"We have to prove ourselves every night out," Calipari said. "Even more than any team in the country."

Calipari likened UK to a boxer, perhaps a bit puffy around the eyes, but still better off pressing the attack.

"At the end of the day, you step in the ring, look at the other guy and say, 'Let's go.'" the UK coach said. " ... We're on the cusp of doing what we want to do."

Of March Madness, the be-all, end-all of every college basketball season, he said, "We have the talent not only to play in that tournament, but to advance."

Mississippi State at Kentucky

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Records: Miss. St. 7-19 (2-12 SEC), UK 19-8 (10-4)

Series: Kentucky leads 88-20

Last meeting: Kentucky won 73-64 on Feb. 21, 2012, at Starkville, Miss.

TV/radio: TV: WKYT-27; WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog:

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