John Clay: Calipari absent from comeback attempt, media obligation

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 1, 2014 

COLUMBIA, S.C. — In the end, the coach who preaches accountability was nowhere to be found.

The last we saw of John Calipari was with 10:23 left in the game at Colonial Life Arena when the Kentucky coach, his shirttail out, his voice no doubt hoarse from screaming, his volcanic emotions having run over, made the long walk from the floor back to the locker room after getting himself ejected.

By the time South Carolina hit its two technical free throws — two of six the Gamecocks made thanks to three UK technical fouls — then scored a basket on the inbounds play and Kentucky got the ball back, the Cats were down by 16 points.

In desperation, Kentucky rallied to slice the lead all the way to one point with 21 seconds remaining, but it wasn't enough. South Carolina won 72-67. Around the nation, jaws dropped.

That's the South Carolina that is now 11-18. That's the South Carolina that is 4-12 in the SEC. That's the South Carolina that came into the game with an RPI ranking of 194.

Yes, as we have been told over and over, this is a young Kentucky basketball team.

But it was the 55-year-old coach who lost his poise.

Asked whether Calipari should have been around to give his team guidance, assistant John Robic, the coach who did the post-game news conference, said he wasn't going to answer that question.

According to UK, the reason Robic faced the media and not Calipari was because the head coach was doing his radio show. Never mind that it is a very rare occurrence when Calipari does not come to the post-game news conference.

UK did email reporters a few quotes from the head coach, including, "I wish I didn't get thrown out of the game, so I could fight with our team."

Robic should get the credit for inspiring the fight. Once Cal got tossed, Kentucky went on an 11-2 run to cut the lead to 57-50. Robic called timeouts. He drew up plays. He coached his heart out.

"We knew we were better than that and we wanted to show it," said guard Aaron Harrison.

The previous 30 minutes were a completely different story, however. In those 30 minutes, the fight with his team seemed to have a completely different meaning.

Bottom line: Calipari is a terrific basketball coach, but for whatever reason, this team does not play like a well-coached team. There are too many bad shots, too many turnovers, too many unforced errors, too many mental mistakes, too many times when there is a noticeable lack of hustle.

When this hyped team should be playing its best basketball of the season, it is clearly playing its worst. After shooting 34.2 percent in the overtime home loss to Arkansas on Thursday, the Cats shot 17.2 percent in the first half against the Gamecocks, 26.9 percent for the game.

Julius Randle and Alex Poythress each missed six of seven shots. Aaron Harrison missed 12 of 16 shots. James Young missed eight of 12 shots.

Meanwhile, Calipari screamed and stamped his foot and jumped in the air and ran subs in and out as if operating a revolving door. Nothing worked.

For all the post-LSU talk about UK's supposed growth, is Randle a better player now than he was in November? Are the Harrison twins? Is Young? Is Kentucky a better team right now, with two games left in the regular season, than it was when the SEC season began?

"It's going to be a great story," said Aaron Harrison, meaning the Cats will turn this thing around.

It's a far different story right now, certainly different than the one we expected in the pre-season when the Cats boasted a freshmen class regarded as possibly the best in history, a No. 1 national ranking, and a coach who proclaimed "We are college basketball."

Saturday night, after the bus left the arena, all we got was Calipari via email.

"Proud of the guys for not giving up," said the statement, "but we all have to figure out what do we each have to do to get this team right."

Starting at the top.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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