Cats stay positive, and a little defensive, during slump

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 3, 2014 Updated 1 hour ago

  • Next game: Kentucky vs. Notre Dame

    When: 8:49 p.m. Saturday

    Location: Cleveland

    TV: TBS

    Radio: WLAP-AM 630 and WBUL-FM 98.1

    Records: No. 1 seed Kentucky 37-0; No. 3 seed Notre Dame 32-5

    Series: UK leads 42-19

Though a lucky bounce away from a three-game losing streak, Kentucky still speaks about a glorious destiny. Just don't ask exactly how the Cats will get there.

"Everybody around the nation thinks we don't have a shot," said Jarrod Polson, who along with Jon Hood will be honored before Tuesday's Senior Night game against Alabama. "They think we're done for. ...

"It's us against world. We're going to prove everyone wrong."

Polson's bold declaration Monday echoed what Aaron Harrison said after the loss at then-last-place South Carolina on Saturday. He insisted that this season would be "a great story" to add to Kentucky basketball lore.

"That's exactly what we want," UK Coach John Calipari said of his players' can-do words.

Then Calipari seemed to suggest critics unfairly harp on his team's setbacks. "I know we were the only team to lose on Saturday," he said sarcastically. "But you deal with it, and you move on. Now, how do we get this team thinking right."

Repeating a UK coaching theme of recent weeks, Calipari spoke of the Cats' confidence needing a boost, which came as no surprise given the poor shooting of late, and at times a hesitancy to take a perimeter shot. So it was good that Polson and Harrison sounded confident.

"We're trying to do stuff," Calipari said. "Let them know, 'What you're trying to do, you're capable of doing, right now.'"

The UK coaches — and all coaches — must walk a tightrope: balancing blunt, even abrasive criticism with encouragement. When asked about this balance, Calipari said, "One thing I know, being a coach, if you don't hold guys accountable, you lose your team."

That principle was "probably the most important thing" a coach must know, he added.

The loss at South Carolina called into question not whether Calipari should hold UK players accountable, but whether he might be wise to turn down the scoldings occasionally and add more encouragement. Coincidentally or not, Kentucky staged a comeback that reduced a 16-point deficit to one after the referees ejected Calipari with 10:25 left. South Carolina's ill-advised shots and turnovers fueled the UK rally, but it seemed assistant coach John Robic's calmer, quieter approach also helped.

"It's not like we brought some Joe Schmo off the street to finish the game," Hood said when asked about Robic's contribution. "It was a new light. Fresh air, I guess."

Calipari interrupted a question about Robic's approach with a sarcastic, if not petulant, counter. "He's a better coach," he said four times before adding, "I should let him be head coach."

Earlier in the day during a Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference, Calipari acknowledged that he'd be willing to try different approaches, be it tough taskmaster or Pete Carroll-like cheerleader.

"I will be whoever I have to be," he said. "Because this is not about me. It's about the team. I have to get them more confident and figure out what do they need me to be."

Calipari noted that flexibility has been a hallmark of his remarkably successful coaching career. "Whatever they need from me, that's how I've coached," he said. "Whatever they need. And I've done it every year I've coached."

Calipari became quite the contortionist in explaining the two technicals and ejection at South Carolina.

"They need me to keep leading them," he said when noting a UK team dependent on freshmen.

So, why didn't Calipari restrain himself after getting hit with a technical foul in the first half. He knew a second technical foul meant an ejection that would rob Kentucky of its leader.

"People walked up and said you did that on purpose," Calipari said. "I didn't do it on purpose. ... Hopefully I've led well enough, they don't need me out there. They can perform. That's leadership!"

Calipari likened the ejection to a team or group adjusting when the leader is absent because of illness or some other reason.

"The ship moves on," he said, "and you look back and say, 'I did a good job leading because I had other people around me on a team that knows they can do this without me.'

"I think that was important for them to see."

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

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