John Clay: Can the Cats we've waited for keep this going?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 14, 2014 

ATLANTA — The tweak was nothing and the tweak was everything.

The tweak wasn't one thing, the tweak was an overall thing.

John Calipari wasn't tweaking his team's scheme this week in preparation for the post-season as much as he was tweaking his team's mind.

With a new attitude — "They had a swagger for two days," said the coach — and an enthusiastic fan base, thrilled to see its team playing like a team again, Kentucky rolled to an 85-67 win over LSU in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday night.

And the first thing many were saying as soon as the final horn sounded: "Where has that team been all year."

"Why didn't I do it earlier?" said Calipari, asking the obvious question. "I don't know. I was figuring out my team, trying to figure out how they should play."

What did he do now? Calipari wouldn't reveal the real tweak he had talked about on his Monday call-in show but safe to say he was happy that "we shared the ball." Asked what pleased him the most, Cal didn't hesitate. "Fifteen assists and nine turns," he said.

Actually, the "tweak" talk was something of a smoke screen for the real difference — no rear-view mirror and a return to smashmouth basketball.

"We had three days of football-type practices," said the coach.

It should be noted that this is a coach who doesn't like to go gridiron so late in the season. Come March, the Calipari mindset is all about shorter practices in an effort to save tired legs. Fresh is best.

This is a different team with different needs. So Cal adjusted. Fresh legs gave way to a fresh start as the coach had his players shred their DVDs of previous games.

Then he pumped up the physicality on Monday, joking he had put his team in shoulder pads and helmets.

Thursday night, when LSU was beating Alabama at the Dome, Calipari was running his team through a down-and-dirty practice at the Atlanta Hawks' facility.

"I told them, 'This is our game,'" he said. "The issue becomes what if someone got hurt. I was really willing to roll the dice because we were not going to play and change unless I did something like that."

The result was a rise in intensity level and, it turned out, joy. There were public shows of emotion. And the faithful that made the trip to Georgia — the ones that really still kept the faith — contributed an essential jolt of electricity.

"This is my third SEC Tournament," said LSU star Johnny O'Bryant. "I knew it was going to be a blue atmosphere in there."

"I thought we fed off of that," said UK's Dakari Johnson.

The first half was all blue. Kentucky played its best first 20 minutes of basketball since it blistered Ole Miss 42-25 in the first half of n 84-70 win in Oxford. Most everything seemed to click on both sides of the floor.

Second half, much as in the Ole Miss game, Kentucky lost its focus a bit, and LSU made a run cutting the lead all the way down to three points, 52-49, with 11:56 left.

"Focus! Focus!" Calipari yelled at his team from the bench.

And then, just like that, the Cats kicked it in again. After missing free throws earlier in the night, they went on a run of 11 makes in 12 attempts. Soon, the lead was back out to 17 points, then 21, and then the horn sounded.

When this particular Kentucky team is playing well, it crashes the glass. Final stat: Kentucky 21 second-chance points; LSU seven.

When this particular Kentucky team is playing well, it gets to the free throw line. UK took 41 foul shots, hitting 26. LSU took 24 free throws.

"When we shoot more fouls than the other team and we're able to play, we're usually pretty good," said Calipari.

Question now: Can they keep it up?

"Let's see if we can continue on this path and really make some people mad," said Calipari, who after a couple of seconds added, "Why do I do this? I can't help myself. Then you all know it's true."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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