John Clay: Late in season, Calipari still in scream mode

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 2, 2013 

  • Thursday

    Kentucky at Georgia

    When: 7 p.m. TV: ESPN

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — There was a possession in the second half Saturday at Bud Walton Arena where Kentucky was playing defense at the other end of the floor and John Calipari had his hands cupped to his mouth in full primal scream.

It was as if somehow, some way — bad tooth and all — the Kentucky coach was finally going to make his team actually hear him.

Only, he couldn't.

He's been in scream mode since the season's first day. That's not fair. Calipari hasn't just screamed. He's cajoled, pleaded, talked, yelled, coaxed, chattered, heart-monitored, instructed, lectured, dodge-balled — anything and everything.

"We're a brand new team," he said again Saturday after UK lost 73-60 to Arkansas.

If so, it's a brand new team with the same old problem.

It remains young.

Just when you think it has gained some hard-earned confidence, it comes up soft.

Rephrase that: Just when it foolishly thinks it has done something, it learns it hasn't really done anything at all.

"They embrace success and this is what happens," Calipari said with a knowing glance. "Especially when you think the other team is going to play like it's an AAU game, that they're not going to play hard.

"'(It's like) why are you playing so hard? Why are you all over me?' Because they want to win. Because they have a desire to win."

Arkansas played as hard Saturday as it always seems to play at home, where Mike Anderson's club has now won 13 straight, where the Hogs are 16-1 this season and 33-4 since Anderson became head coach.

But Kentucky's 13-point loss wasn't just about being outscored 30-2 off turnovers, or getting off 26 fewer shots, or allowing Arkansas to grab 20 offensive rebounds.

No, the seeds of this performance were sown after the Cats foolishly thought a three-game win streak — all three coming in the friendly confines of Rupp Arena, two over teams in the bottom quarter of the SEC standings — meant they had "turned the corner" and experienced "a breakthrough."

Uh, not so fast.

Calipari is old enough to know better. Asked Friday about his team's so-called "breakthrough," the coach gave a "we'll see"-type answer.

So we did.

"I wake up every day and don't know how the team will play," said Calipari, who has been bothered by a dental problem of late. "I hoped that (we were past this) but ... "

Just as Kentucky fans hoped the win over Missouri had punched the team's NCAA dance card, the loss to Arkansas might not hurt the Cats' standing in the eyes of the committee — even Florida lost at Arkansas — but it surely didn't help, either.

"We've got a couple of guys who are overwhelmed by stuff, and that's typical freshmen," Calipari said. "When you get overwhelmed, you get anxiety and you back up."

The past three years, UK has enjoyed atypical freshmen. Some were already mature. Others matured quickly. Calipari has pretty much known what he was going to get game after game, and most of it was good. Really good.

It hasn't been that way this season. His first three seasons at UK, Calipari lost one game by double digits. This year, he's lost five. Three of those came with Nerlens Noel in the lineup.

Calipari has tried to speed up the growing up. (This is not a guy who lacks ideas or is unwilling to try new things.) Sometimes, that just can't be done, no matter how many different methods you try, no matter how loud your voice.

If you coach a young team that insists on staying young, your eyes are going to open most mornings to the thought that you don't know what to expect, and that may just make you want to scream.

"We could go out next game and play out of our minds," said Calipari, giving it a who-knows shrug. "And I'll be happy."

That's just it with this team, you never know.

And, if you're young, that's one lesson right there: Just when you think you know, that's when you really don't.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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