Cauley-Stein questions Cats' urgency, warns season could still go south

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 28, 2014 

After Kentucky lost to Arkansas on Thursday night, Willie Cauley-Stein recalled last season's final chapter: A major re-adjustment caused by Nerlens Noel's torn anterior cruciate ligament, then the determination, however ultimately futile, to avoid the dead end that is the NIT.

You know, the good old days.

"You really feel like you're seriously fighting for your life," Cauley-Stein said of last season. "Now ... I don't think the guys get that. I think some of us think we're already in (the NCAA Tournament) and everything's going to take care of itself.

"But we're not in yet, and it could easily go south if we don't turn it around."

In that context, Coach John Calipari didn't help matters earlier in the week when he mentioned Kentucky and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the same sentence. But that seemed part of a strategy to infuse the young Cats with can-do confidence. Perhaps an unintended consequence was unwarranted assurances about the post-season.

The 71-67 overtime loss to Arkansas, which Calipari likened to the desultory performance at LSU a month earlier, raised anew questions about Kentucky's ability to sustain effort.

Freshman Marcus Lee used the word "nonchalant" to describe UK's approach to the first game against Arkansas. Cauley-Stein hit on a similar theme Thursday night as he spoke of the immediate future, which includes a game at South Carolina on Saturday.

"It's a test for guys to really see if we're about this run," he said. "And, if we are, then tomorrow the sense of urgency in practice is going to be way different. The game against South Carolina, we'll see then. We can come out and play out of our minds, and nobody's ever going to remember we had this conversation."

When asked how confident he was about the Cats' sense of urgency, Cauley-Stein noted how he and other veterans like Alex Poythress, Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood know all too well how hopes can unravel.

"It's a scary thing if you let it go south," he said.

With Arkansas delivering the latest downer in a season marked by inconsistency, Calipari acknowledged that he really has no idea which Kentucky team will appear at South Carolina.

Familiar problems resurfaced. Spotty free-throw shooting. Playing rather than competing. Too easily discouraged by adversity.

"The thing that disappointed me ... is even with the lead, we had two guys that gave up on the game," Calipari said without naming those players. "You know it because you watched and you saw. They gave up on the game. You've got to just keep fighting. It doesn't matter how you're playing. It's about our team. That's what we're trying to bust through right now."

Calipari noted a stretch of almost seven minutes in the second half when Arkansas scored only one basket. During that time, UK erased a nine-point deficit and took a four-point lead into the final minute of regulation.

"Then, all of a sudden, two guys started walking around, heads went down," the UK coach said. "I'm like, 'You got to be kidding me.'"

More fun, a sensation the UK coaches have emphasized since Julius Randle's overtime winner against LSU last weekend, seemed in the offing against Arkansas, Calipari said. Arkansas' style of trapping and pressuring provides the opponent the chance to make plays, not run plays.

"You can get out and run," Calipari said.

But Cauley-Stein hit on the method underpinning Arkansas' approach. Dating to the days of Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell," the Hogs wanted to separate the opponent from the security of familiar habits and practiced patterns.

"They're a reckless team," Cauley-Stein said. "... With other teams that are more organized and you know what they're going to run and you know what they're going to do at certain times, it's way easier. ... This team, you have no idea. It's super hard to play against teams like that where the coach just lets them ball."

The tension that came with the final minutes of regulation and then overtime brought an irony. The so-called reckless team found comfort in anxiety.

"Staying poised, staying with each other through adversity," said Coty Clarke, who scored seven of Arkansas' 11 points in overtime. "Stay the course. We've been there many times. We know what to do."

Randle unwittingly echoed the sentiment.

"It's hard," he said of dealing with defeat. "But we have to stay on course with the process."

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

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