SEC Tournament a 'testing ground' for Cats

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 12, 2013 

  • SEC Tournament

    Kentucky vs. Arkansas or Vanderbilt

    When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

    Where: Nashville

    TV: WKYT-27

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Willie Cauley-Stein.

Kentucky's 7-foot freshman used that cautionary approach when asked if last weekend's victory over Florida represented a turning point for Kentucky.

"I don't think I can answer that now," said Cauley-Stein with his customary thoughtfulness. "We've been here before like that. So I'm not going to try to answer that."

Barely more than two weeks ago, Kentucky seemingly turned a metaphorical corner with an overtime victory over Missouri. After a routine follow-up victory over Mississippi State, UK got drubbed at Arkansas and Georgia.

"We went right back," Cauley-Stein said Tuesday.

UK Coach John Calipari seemed to approve of Cauley-Stein's caution. "Then I think there's some guys in the room Willie doesn't trust ... ," he said. "We have a little bit of that."

Translation: UK players still must learn how to function with a roster-wide, one-for-all unity. One game, even in a so-called one-game season, does not a turning point make.

To borrow a trite term that's common in the sporting world, Kentucky remains a work-in-progress entering the Southeastern Conference Tournament this week. On Tuesday, Calipari hit on the same well-worn themes: Play hard, play together, lose yourself in the team.

"At some point as a player say, 'My stuff is not working and I'm dropping like a rock,'" said Calipari in apparent reference to ever-present NBA Draft considerations. "'Tell me exactly what you want me to do.'"

Calipari again saluted UK's ability to overcome obstacles: the absences of point guard Ryan Harrow, Cauley-Stein and finally Nerlens Noel, who underwent surgery Tuesday to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The Cats finished second in the SEC, and, as Calipari likes to note, won as many games against the top six teams in the standings as anyone.

But the Cats go into the SEC Tournament, or at least Calipari hopes they do, with an attitude.

"We have something to prove, believe me," he said.

First of all, to themselves. "What do you want to be?" Calipari said of Kentucky's would-be self-analysis. "How do you want to do it? Do you want to do this together?"

The SEC Tournament will be a "good testing ground" for these questions, he said.

Kentucky (21-10) also has something to prove to others.

Cauley-Stein noted the doubters that exist. "It doesn't feel like we won 20-some games," he said.

He acknowledged the irritation that comes with feeling unappreciated.

"We won 20-something games," he said. "There's other teams out there that don't have 20 wins, and they're getting super-hyped."

When asked how this season felt, in terms of victories, Cauley-Stein said, "It feels like we're barely over .500."

To not be "super-hyped" is the fate of playing for Kentucky, he said. "That's the way the media makes it feel like."

Perhaps trying to stoke a competitive fire, Calipari noted how the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption has included doubts about Kentucky. Inadequate point guard play. "The kid can't play," Calipari said. The freshman recruiting class included "mistakes," which Calipari said he'd translated into challenges for Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin.

"They say you're not good enough," the UK coach said he told the freshmen. "That's what happens when a team struggles. When your team does really good, you know you don't have to take the most shots."

That was a reference to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, team-first players who helped lead Kentucky to the 2012 national championship.

Calipari stated his belief in this season's team and likened them to Connecticut in 2011. After a middling regular season, UConn won it all.

"You can do this," the UK coach said. "This is one of those years, but you have to want to do it. And that has to be the most important thing to you. Not how you're playing, but how we're playing."

And if that message can't get through to the players, there's always what Calipari made sound like a threat: Having to be part of next season's UK team, which has a super-hyped incoming freshman class.

"You could have this team and next year's guys on the same team," Calipari said. Then the UK coach said he could bench players for insufficiencies.

Kentucky this season included indulgences "you normally wouldn't do and wouldn't accept," Calipari said. " ... knowing at the end of the season, it's time to regroup (and) going back to how we do things."

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

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