Kentucky basketball still grasping for its mojo

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 10, 2014 

Kentucky Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison (2) scored over Florida Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) as the University of Kentucky played the University of Florida in the Stephen C. OÕConnell Center in Gainesville, Fl., Saturday, March 8, 2014. This is second half college basketball action. Florida defeated UK 84-65 to go undefeated in the SEC. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff

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"Very simple stuff to talk about," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said of his team's very-difficult-to-attain goals going forward. "But we've got four days to really ingrain (those basketball principles).

"Let's go back to those things that we've done at different points of the year. That we now say, let's do it for 40 minutes."

Going into this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament, Kentucky takes solace in doing it for six minutes in the second-half rally at Florida Saturday.

"Shows how good we can really be on both ends of the floor," Julius Randle said of UK's 15-0 run against the nation's No. 1 team. "It's emerging. ... We know we can do it. We just have to do it all the time. We can't do it (only) when our backs are up against the wall."

More than four months after the season began, the question remains: how to get a freshman-laden team to play much closer to 40-minute peak efficiency?

To borrow from the Bible, Randle acknowledged that to seek this path to basketball success is to look through a glass, darkly.

"We don't know what we've got to do," he said after the Florida game. "But we've got to get it going."

To help produce more resolve when adversity occurs (and perhaps as a commentary on officiating abandoning the intent on reducing physical play this season), Calipari said that he hoped to introduce more contact in this week's practices.

"Teams that played that way had a big advantage (during the season)," he said on a SEC coaches' teleconference Monday. "So we're going back to that."

Calipari again noted how Kentucky needs to recapture it's "mojo." Only two weeks ago, UK finished a stretch of six victories in seven games, with the loss coming against Florida.

"Very important in the next few days to get our mindset where it's got to be," Calipari said. "And where we were two weeks ago."

Webster's dictionary defines "mojo" as luck springing from magical or supernatural origins. The author Laini Taylor noted how hope can be "a powerful force." Even if magic does not really exist, she wrote, "when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic."

Calipari put the "mojo" Kentucky seeks to regain in basketball terms.

"Just play off one another more," he said. "More into each other. More for the good stuff that's happening in the game."

In other words, more like Florida, which became the first team with an 18-0 regular-season SEC record by beating Kentucky.

Calipari saluted a play at Florida in which a Gator guard fed a pass to a big man, whose return pass set up an open perimeter shot.

"Just two guys knowing each other and playing for each other," Calipari said. "For me, that was the best play of the game. That's the kind of stuff we're not getting right now."

As if thinking aloud of the team play he just witnessed by Florida and still hopes for from Kentucky, Calipari added in almost a wistful tone, "The great ones make a two-on-one look simple. We kind of make those look harder."

Several other SEC coaches on the teleconference stressed the importance of positive thinking going into the post-season. Coincidentally or not, UK coaches have been accentuating the positive the last several weeks to the point of citing the first loss to Florida as more valuable than a victory in terms of teaching lessons.

"Teams that are still excited about playing, still excited about playing with each other, still excited about extending their season, those are the teams that typically go on and win this time of year," Auburn Coach Tony Barbee said. "You see that every year. You see it on a team's faces."

Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings pooh-poohed the notion that a post-season run can be detected beforehand. It quietly grows, one victory at a time, until it's an irresistible force.

"I think it's more of a thing you get there, you win a game," Stallings said. "You kind of get a feeling, get some confidence and you start playing well. That confidence kind of gets contagious and it carries you through some or all of the weekend.

"With each game you win, you gain more confidence. There's more momentum that's built."

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

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