Calipari asks Cats to 'unpack the bags' and get better

jtipton@herald-leader.comNovember 15, 2013 

After reflecting on Tuesday's loss to Michigan State, John Calipari is asking Kentucky players to leave behind the mind-polluting whir of 40-0 record, greatest recruiting class ever, No. 1-versus-No. 2, national championship, one-and-done and move to the NBA next June.

"I'm telling the kids, let's just worry about being good college players because we're not right now," Calipari told reporters Friday. "When the season's over, we'll worry about all that other stuff.

"Unpack the bags, boys. Unpack the bags. Let's start playing some basketball. Let's get better."

If Calipari gets his wish, less will become more as Kentucky's season unfolds. He wants the Cats to hit the re-start button beginning with Sunday's game against Robert Morris.

Calipari counseled patience as the process continues to make another freshman-dependent team into an effective unit. He noted the silver lining in the 78-74 loss to Michigan State in the Champions Classic.

For instance, the Cats, who started four freshmen, rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to tie it at 66 with 4:48 to go.

"Nice will (to win) there," he said. "Guys kept fighting. So we had something to build on. They had a chance to let go of the rope."

Michigan State's wealth of experience in big games and/or carnival atmospheres showed down the stretch. Two years ago, the Spartans played North Carolina on an aircraft carrier in San Diego with President Obama courtside, then played Duke at Madison Square Garden in the first Champions Classic. Last season, State played Connecticut on an air base in Germany before playing Kansas in Atlanta in the second Champions Classic.

UK, which scored three baskets (two of which were put-backs) in the final eight minutes, had what Calipari called a "deer-in-headlights" appearance.

On the plus side, last season's bugaboo about not being competitive and tough-minded seems a non-issue. Calipari cited the 44-32 rebounding advantage UK enjoyed.

"When you out-rebound a team like Michigan State, you're tougher than we were a year ago," he said.

Calipari noted how Kentucky must add to its capabilities.

"We had to run one play 16 times" against State, he said. Of course, that play involved getting the ball to Julius Randle, whose 27 points and 13 rebounds steadied UK.

"Just keep running it," Calipari said. "We found one thing that works, and it's like we're not changing it."

Re-stating his mantra about how crisis can foster change, Calipari called for twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison to make fundamental adjustments.

"They'll be fine," he said, "but from this, you've got to change. I need to see that they've changed. That there is change in attitude. There is change in approach. There is change in effort level. There is change in focus.

"As long as that's happening, it's a good experience for us."

Calipari acknowledged that the Harrisons' body language had to improve.

"They get upset with themselves," he said. "You can't do it. When you have a habit you've had for 17 years, to say within two months, you're going to change (is not realistic).

"Look at Alex (Poythress). It took him a full year to realize 'If I don't change, I'm not making it.'"

Poythress contributed seven points and 12 rebounds and a career-high three blocks. "Playing out of his mind," Calipari said.

Through three games, Poythress has 32 rebounds. He's rebounding more (he averaged 6.7 rebounds last season) while playing less (22.7 minutes compared to 25.8 last season).

"Shots and points, that's all ego," Calipari said. "It's how you're playing."

Calipari mentioned two possible changes in the player rotation: More time for freshman point guard Dominique Hawkins to relieve Andrew Harrison, and for freshman Marcus Lee, who might look good in tandem with Willie Cauley-Stein.

The UK coach noted how a season means a series of adjustments and tweaks. In that context, the loss to Michigan State was a good thing.

"Probably the worst thing for this year would have been to win at the buzzer," Calipari said. "I was literally physically ill the whole day (afterward). It got me back to saying, what do we have to do with this team?

"If you win ... it's hard to get through to those guys."


Sunday

Robert Morris at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

inside

No. 1 no more: Kentucky's top recruit commits to Arizona, and Duke gets two top-five prospects to climb to the top spot in the recruiting rankings. Page D5

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

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