Calipari: Saturday 'a one-game season' for Kentucky

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 8, 2013 

  • No. 11 Florida at Kentucky

    When: Noon Saturday

    TV: CBS-27

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: Florida 24-5 (14-3 SEC), Kentucky 20-10 (11-6)

    Series: Kentucky leads 93-34

    Last meeting: Florida won 69-52 on Feb. 12 in Gainesville.

Fairly or not, freshman Alex Poythress has come to personify Kentucky's frustration this basketball season. Eyes turned to him all winter when Coach John Calipari ordered, requested, demanded and pleaded for more competitive zeal from the Cats.

With the regular season ending in Saturday's annual made-for-TV finale against Florida, Poythress sounded like he's arrived at the final stop on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Surely, Calipari would hope all Kentucky players belatedly accepted the need for all-out, all-in resolve.

"I'm probably disappointed in myself," Poythress said Friday, "because I realize I could give more effort out there. ...

"You know, it's time to change."

That captured the tone Kentucky voiced Friday. Whatever the trials and travails of 2012-13, Kentucky can reboot its season by beating Florida.

"This is a one-game season," Calipari said, "And it will be every game from here on out. That's what it is."

Kentucky, 20-10 overall and 11-6 in the Southeastern Conference, looks to strengthen its flickering hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid. Four straight road losses by double-digit margins (the first time that's happened to a UK team since 1910) surely jeopardized Kentucky's chances for an NCAA Tournament bid.

"Of course, we want to win for him," Ryan Harrow said of Julius Mays, who along with Twany Beckham will be feted on UK's Senior Day. "But we want to win for ourselves, too. Our respect.

"A lot of people don't respect us. We just have to make them respect us by how we do tomorrow and how we do the rest of the season."

The onus falls on Harrow. He figures to be the focal point of Florida's celebrated defensive prowess, which begins with Scottie Wilbekin's on-ball pressure.

"Everybody's going to try to pressure us," Harrow said. "The word is when they pressure us, we kind of crumble and turn it over.

"If I do well, then we'll have a pretty good chance of winning. And then if I don't, it's on me."

While acknowledging Florida's defensive ability (league opponents are shooting 37.6 percent overall, 27.6 percent from three-point range), Calipari noted that guards for Missouri and Arkansas handled the pressure in beating the Gators. "We're capable," the UK coach said.

Calipari gushed do-or-die analogies. Desperation can bring fantastic feats, he noted. Fearing death, a drowning man can find renewed strength to swim to safety. A person crushed under a car can find a way to lift a 3,000-pound vehicle.

Kentucky, a team Calipari called "a wounded animal" after a 30-point loss at Tennessee three weeks ago, must beat No. 11 Florida. The Gators clinched the SEC's regular-season championship this week and sport an overall scoring margin of 19.5 points (the fourth-largest since the league began compiling that statistic in 1969).

"Are you going to fight like heck?" Calipari said. "Are you going to play through the ups and downs of the game? Or are you going to die?

"I can't put it any more plainly or bluntly."

Calipari reminded reporters that Florida (24-5 overall and 14-3 in the SEC) has incentive. With a 7-5 record on the opponents' court, the Gators can bolster their case for a high seed. Plus no current Florida player has won at Kentucky (the last UF victory here came in 2007).

"We want to go out on top," Florida freshman Michael Frazier said on Thursday. "We want to finish the regular season on top going into the tournament off a win."

Calipari welcomed the challenge of finding a way for Kentucky to beat Florida.

"This is the exciting part of what you do," he said. "How do you get your team where they're in this frame of mind, you have to switch this thing over and get them ready to play."

This process boils down to "Are you willing to 'ball?'" he said. "Or are you going to have a man-made excuse before we start the game."

Calipari spoke of even larger stakes than Saturday's one big game.

"We need the eye on this program, the far-reaching parts of it, not just tomorrow's game," he said. "Where is this going? Who can be part of it? Who can't?

"When this kind of game comes, this is what playing at Kentucky is all about."

Harrow was asked if that felt like a threat from the coach.

"It hasn't sounded like that to me," he said.

How secure does Harrow feel about being UK's point guard of the future?

"I'm worried about right now," the sophomore said.

It's late for a season-saving moment. But, not too late.

Said Poythress: "There's always time till the fat lady stops singing."

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

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