John Clay: Intensity, focus missing from Calipari's crew

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 7, 2013 

ARLINGTON, Texas — The passenger wearing a blue "UK" jacket on the rental car shuttle at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on Saturday morning summed it up quite nicely.

"That women's game last night was great," he said. "But the men's game, it stunk."

His exact word was not "stunk," but you get the idea concerning Kentucky's 67-62 loss to 20th-ranked Baylor at AT&T Stadium.

After the fifth-ranked women went four overtimes to finally outlast No. 9 Baylor 133-130, you didn't really get the feeling Kentucky's third-ranked men's team went to the same lengths.

And judging by what I heard on the way home, from a group of Kentucky fans that felt like it had braved the elements of a paralyzing Dallas ice storm to make it to Friday's night basketball doubleheader, the fact that the UK men's team didn't come close to weathering the storm on the court did not sit well.

But then through nine games, John Calipari's young and overhyped team has at times shown a definite lack of intensity and focus.

Focused teams don't miss 11 of 23 free throws.

Intense teams don't give up more offensive rebounds (18) than it gets defensive rebounds (15) — something that's happened just three previous times in the Calipari Era.

Intense teams don't go through an entire 40-minute game without managing to come up with one single steal, a statistical oddity that had not happened to a Kentucky basketball team since 2008.

And, of course, focused teams don't let a 50-41 lead with 13:08 left go by the wayside thanks to sloppy turnovers, missed free throws and the inability to complete a box-out.

To be sure, Baylor isn't Cupcake State. Coach Scott Drew returned several key pieces from a team that won the NIT last season, the same tournament in which Kentucky was bounced in the first round. The Bears came to Lexington last year and handed Calipari his first and only loss at Rupp.

And Friday night inside cavernous AT&T, with 7-foot-1 Isaiah Austin, 6-9 Cory Jefferson and 6-8 truck Rico Gathers, the Bears proved that if UK cannot overwhelm a team with its own size and length, the Cats have very little to fall back on.

Even though Kentucky battered Michigan State on the boards, the Spartans had enough size to give the Cats problems. Michigan State shot 58.1 percent the first half in Chicago, the only team to shoot 50 percent or better in a half against Kentucky — until Friday night, that is, when Baylor shot 51.7 percent the first half.

But Kentucky lost the Michigan State game by being unfocused at the start, falling way behind early before a furious rally came up short.

Kentucky lost to Baylor by being unfocused at the end. The Cats shot just 35 percent in the second half, just the third time in nine games this year that Calipari's club shot less than 50 percent in the final 20 minutes.

To be fair, there were plenty of distractions in Texas, even beyond the weather. The epic first game of Friday's doubleheader kept pushing back the start time of the men's game. Baylor's Austin said his team would be up and ready to go out on the floor, then have to go back in the locker room and try to stay active.

Those aren't excuses, however. Though this is the site of the Final Four in April, Friday night's game had more of an early-round NCAA Tournament feel, a late tip time played before a ton of empty seats.

When it was over, the homecoming had been spoiled. Kentucky forward Julius Randle calls Dallas home, and the Harrison twins hail from the great state of Texas. In the post-game news conference, Randle had his head bowed so low in disappointment you wondered if he had the energy to lift it up.

Calipari answered some media questions, but when the first query was directed toward a player, the coach abruptly got up and left the podium as if he couldn't stand to talk about his team's lack of "toughness" and "effort" one second more.

Or maybe Calipari just wanted to go watch a tape of that women's game.

John Clay: 859-231-3226.E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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