Gloves off, helmets on as Cats get set for SEC tourney

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 11, 2014 

Grab. Bump. Knock. Hack. Hit. Hold. Slap. Smack. Scratch. Bite. Claw. Bend. Spindle. Mutilate.

All those defensive tactics John Calipari decries, especially before Kentucky plays Louisville, he now endorses. He called for his team to match the other team's style foul for foul.

"Put your arm up, let me see your hands, and now foul with body," Calipari said Tuesday in describing how he wants UK to play going forward. "Do it on every drive and every post-up."

Calipari's call to arms (and hands and knees and elbows and forearms and fingernails) continued his new theme going into the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Because he believes the emphasis on reducing physical play this season has faded away, he calls for Kentucky to initiate rather than simply absorb contact. Hence physical practices this week.

"After going back and watching the film ... you can just see everybody else bodying us on drives and post-ups," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "And you wonder why we weren't doing that the whole time."

Because Calipari believed that the NCAA meant it when it ordered referees to call more fouls in order to reduce physical play and increase scoring. He no longer believes.

"As each month and week went on, it got more and more physical," Calipari said. "So, basically, we're back to where we were a year ago when everybody said you foul on every possession in order to win."

John Adams, the national coordinator of men's basketball officiating, acknowledged that the emphasis on reducing physical play has lessened.

"What I've noticed is they're still doing a pretty good job on the perimeter," he said of the referees. "But it tends to deteriorate the closer you get to the basket. We're still having trouble with what I'd call rough post play and chucking and grabbing cutters."

Adams called the jockeying to rebound missed free throws "a free-for-all."

As for Calipari's complaints, Adams noted that the UK coach had a First Amendment right to free speech. Adams said he had not watched enough Kentucky games to have an opinion. He noted that coaches generally believe the emphasis on reducing physical play has decreased.

"There shouldn't have been much difference going from December to March," he said.

UK players said they had not noticed much of a difference, which can be interpreted as an endorsement of the referees' consistency or an indictment of poor officiating throughout the season.

"I don't see a difference," said Julius Randle, the subject of double- and triple-teaming much of the season. "It's been physical from the beginning of the season for me."

Randle welcomed the referees letting the players be more physical. "Just letting us play basketball," he said. "It's been good."

James Young echoed Randle's view. "I don't see a big difference," he said. "... They've been calling the same calls against us all season."

On his radio show Monday night, Calipari said that football helmets and pads were part of practices this week. That was not meant literally, Young said. The only pads in use were the puffy pillow-like pads normally used in practices, he said.

But the larger point was that Kentucky wants to be a more physical team. Calipari decried how opponents put a body on the receiver to prevent him from rising to catch a lob pass.

"Is this lacrosse or basketball?" Calipari said on the radio show.

He said he had to prepare Kentucky for more of the same physical play in the post-season, and suggested opponents were to blame for the Cats not having fun.

"Hard to have fun when you're getting mugged," he said. "Now, we'll mug each other."

Calipari apologized to UK players for earlier instructing them on how to play without resorting to contact. He said the apology came after he saw the players warm to the idea of a black eye-for-a black eye.

"It was very clear when you saw it," he said.

Cauley-Stein suggested the apology had an inspirational effect.

"That's just being a man, you know what I mean?" Cauley-Stein said. "When you get to that point where you know you're wrong and you can admit it, it's powerful. You get a rally from your team after that."

Mystery theater

Calipari and players spoke of the beneficial effect of a "tweak" to the offense, but everyone was sworn to secrecy. The "tweak" will be apparent when Kentucky plays in the SEC Tournament on Friday against either LSU or Alabama. At least apparent to some.

"If you know anything about basketball, you'll know exactly what I did," Calipari said. "If you don't know anything about basketball, you'll look at everybody else's tweets and read their blogs and say, 'What is he saying it is because I don't know about basketball, so I hope somebody knows so I can write like I know.'"

Freshman of the Year

The coaches voted Randle the SEC Freshman of the Year.

"Just humbled," he said of the award. "Very honored. It just shows how good the teammates I have are and how good a coach I have to put me in positions to win the award."

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

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