Calipari hopes Kentucky's 'light goes on' at Florida

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 7, 2014 

Although critics dismiss his ballyhooed collection of would-be stars as finished, John Calipari declared Kentucky's season far from over on Friday.

"To have people say this team is done, I just don't believe it," the UK coach said at a news conference the day before his team plays at No. 1 Florida.

Earlier in the week, ESPN analysts Fran Fraschilla and Jay Bilas stuck metaphorical forks in Kentucky. Next to no chance to win at Florida nor make any significant impact in the NCAA Tournament, they said.

Calipari cited numbers to support the contention that Kentucky still can be ... well, Kentucky. This called to mind the old saying about "lies, damned lies, and statistics," which Wikipedia says describes the persuasive power of numbers to bolster weak arguments. Or, if you prefer, as American writer Gregg Easterbrook has said: "Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything."

After being waterboarded by Calipari, the numbers say Kentucky can compete at Florida, and, by inference, anywhere against anyone.

"Our numbers, whether they're offensive or defensive numbers, are fine versus their numbers," he said.

"It's just going to be OK," Calipari added in a tone that suggested a parent soothing a frightened child. "Let's go. Let's go do this. Let's go compete and see what happens.

"It's not going to be easy. There is nothing that's going to be easy about it."

One number not mentioned: zero. That's the number of times any Kentucky team has beaten a No. 1 team on the No. 1 team's court. Overall in such games, UK is 0-2 on the opposing court, 3-2 in Rupp Arena and 3-9 at neutral sites.

More discouraging numbers: Florida has won 31 straight games in its O'Connell Center. The Gators will seek to become the first team to go 18-0 in a Southeastern Conference season, and the first to post such a record in a BCS conference since Indiana went 18-0 in the Big Ten in 1976.

This raised the question of whether the Kentucky players believe they can win at Florida. After all, the Cats are 1-4 against ranked teams, and if not for a lucky bounce against LSU would have lost three of their last four games.

"I mean, it's a game," Willie Cauley-Stein said when asked whether UK believes. "You play to win the game. Obviously, 100 percent."

Cauley-Stein acknowledged that the time is now for Kentucky to make the long-awaited, often-delayed declaration of its validity as a championship contender.

"It's to that point our backs are kind of against the wall," he said. "And players are going to have to show they're players. That's everybody on the team."

Calipari acknowledged the long, tough grind of the season. "Friends say, 'You look tired,'" he said. "I am tired! It's March. I'm exhausted!"

In a quieter voice, he accepted a reporter's notion that the UK freshmen have hit an emotional/mental wall.

"Probably," he said. "Probably."

Many high school seasons, the type UK's freshmen played as recently as last season, have ended. College players forge onward. After the game at Florida, Kentucky will play in the SEC Tournament next week in Atlanta, then, it hopes, for several more weeks in the NCAA Tournament.

"Now, you're in the gut-check of your season," Calipari said of hitting a metaphorical wall. "Some of it could be that."

Calipari spoke of needing to juice the Kentucky players' anticipation. "We've got to get them excited about this game," he said.

The game at Florida affords Kentucky the delicious opportunity to spoil an opponent's quest for history and its Senior Day party.

"It'd be great," Cauley-Stein said of winning Saturday. "That's what we go down there for. That's kind of the motivation of what we're trying to do."

Returning to the not-fair theme that's come to mark this season, Calipari noted that other teams — Syracuse? — lost several games recently, yet no one is pulling the plug on their season.

"'OK, just wait till they get ready for the (NCAA) tournament,'" Calipari said of the reaction to other teams' downward slides. "That's what this team is.

"Let's hope the light goes on. If it goes on this game, fine. If it takes another game, fine. We just need the light to go on."

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

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