John Clay: After no-show, it's showtime for UK

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistFebruary 1, 2014 

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Give credit to the new player-coach, Alex Poythress, the savvy sophomore who called the players-only meeting in his Baton Rouge hotel room after the Cats slipped on the ice, figuratively at least, and suffered a blow to the ego against LSU.

"Who told you about it?" asked Julius Randle on Saturday, when the subject was brought up, just minutes after a completely different group of Cats went out and mastered Missouri 84-79 right here in Mizzou Arena.

That would be Dakari Johnson.

"Oh," said Randle, with a sly grin.

So turned out the meeting mattered?

"Yeah, that helped I guess," said the slightly grinning head coach, John Calipari, the same man who on Friday had dismissed the significance of such an event.

"Don't know, don't care," he said. "Show me on the floor."

So the Cats showed him and a national TV audience by displaying some passion, some emotion and a whole lot of offense, shooting 53.6 percent to tame the Tigers and their high-scoring guard duo of Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28).

This prompted the real head coach, that being Calipari, to ask what is now the bottom-line question about this Kentucky basketball team?

"Are we this team (Saturday) or the other team (Tuesday)," he said.

"You see them every day," a media member countered, "which team do you think you have?"

"The team I want them to be is the one that played today," he said.

After all, Missouri rarely loses at home and Coach Frank Haith's team was coming off a Tuesday night triumph at Arkansas, where UK lost in overtime just a couple of weeks back.

Plus, this was the Cats' first trip to the Columbia campus, a milestone that drew the attendance of Missouri senator Claire McCaskill, who tweeted out a picture of the packed Mizzou student section with the caption, "A damn fine sight."

Did we mention this was another ice game? And you know how they Cats had fared in ice games. They lost 67-62 to Baylor during an ice storm in Dallas. They lost 87-82 at LSU during an ice storm.

This time, the ice followed them to Missouri, forcing the UK charter to land in St. Louis on Friday night, where the team was bused to Columbia, arriving just before midnight Central Time.

"We actually got a lot of sleep out of it," said UK sharpshooter James Young, who scored 20 points. "So I think that probably helped us and kept us focused during the game."

The result was the Cats followed possibly their worst game of the season with one of their best games of the season, and we are not just speaking of the numbers.

There were actual occurrences of Kentucky players diving on the floor for loose balls. There were surprising instances in which Kentucky players actually rushed to help a fallen teammate. When Missouri finally got its motor going and rallied, the young Cats didn't buckle under pressure. To use a timely metaphor this terrible winter, they weathered the storm.

"These guys know, they know," Calipari said of the panic-filled and negative BBN reaction to the LSU game. "The stuff that anyone is saying about this team and these players, they can change it."

Book of Cal translation: You can't change your height. You can't change your skill. You can change the three Es — effort, enthusiasm, emotion.

And there's a fourth E — evolve — which only comes from the tricky process of starts and stops, ups and downs, frustration and fulfillment and sometimes players-only meetings.

"It wasn't to try to impress anybody," Randle said. "It was something we needed to do."

So back to Cal's question: Who are these Cats really?

My vote: All of the above.

They are inexperienced enough to be capable of again laying the type of egg they laid in Louisiana. But they proved they are experienced enough to bounce back with a strong effort for a conference road win.

"There's a lot of talent on that team," Haith said. "They've got guys coming off the bench who will get paid to play."

One is the aforementioned Poythress, who produced one of the game's biggest baskets, scoring off a pretty pick-and-roll to give UK a seven-point lead with 1:47 remaining.

Afterward, the player-coach was unavailable for comment, which was just as well. Kentucky let its game speak for itself.

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

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