Better. Maybe night-and-day better. But not nearly good enough.
That was the mixed message Kentucky delivered after an attention-getting 93-86 victory over Virginia Tech on Saturday.
The Cats are noticeably improved from, say, the Blue-White Game two months earlier when Coach John Calipari questioned the players’ endurance and said he doubted whether the young Cats could beat an opponent with a Ratings Percentage Index in the top 50.
Technically, the latter is still in doubt. Through games Monday, Virginia Tech had an RPI of No. 94. And Kentucky lost to its only opponent with a top-50 RPI: No. 26 Kansas.
Still, after the victory over Virginia Tech, Kevin Knox spoke of great improvement.
“We’re nowhere near where we were two months ago,” he said after the Virginia Tech game. “We’re so much better. So much better.”
Even though Virginia Tech made 58.2 percent of its shots, Knox said the defense was improved. “We were getting chewed (out) in film” when reviewing defense two months earlier, he said.
UK’s level of conditioning and offensive execution were no longer “horrible,” Knox said. “It’s just all come together, now.”
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who worked the telecast of Kentucky’s victory over Virginia Tech, also saw a much-improved UK team.
“Impressive,” he said of UK’s victory. “I mean, really impressive. Because I think they beat a quality team. …
“They’ve made tremendous strides,” Vitale said of the Cats.
On his radio show Monday night, Calipari did not dispute the notion that Kentucky had improved significantly. But he stayed true to the Coaching 101 textbook, which instructs coaches to never be satisfied, and always seek greater improvement.
With the trajectory Kentucky is on, an optimistic caller asked how much better Calipari envisioned his team playing in the NCAA Tournament. The UK coach did not sound assured that this better-than-ever team was a certainty.
“Every player must be improving for our team to get better …,” Calipari said. “With each player getting better, which on this team is happening …, the ceiling on your team starts moving up. … I’m not worried where we are right now. We are where we are.”
Hamidou Diallo and Knox were UK’s two leading scorers in the victory over Virginia Tech. Calipari said he had a pointed message for Diallo, who’s made 15 of 29 shots, including five of nine from three-point range, in scoring 43 points in the last two games.
“I got on Hami,” Calipari said of a spurring of Diallo in a practice this week. “And I just said, ‘I’m not backing up. You’re not reverting back. You’re going to keep trending up. … I’m holding you more accountable. How are you defending? How engaged are you?’”
Knox rebounded from a 1-for-9 shooting, seven-turnover performance against Monmouth a weekend earlier by scoring a team-high 21 points (with only two turnovers in 35 minutes) against Virginia Tech.
Calipari re-emphasized the need to drive to score and/or draw fouls when the perimeter shots are missing.
UK’s leading rebounder, Nick Richards, had six rebounds against Virginia Tech. “He would have had eight more rebounds in that game if he had just gone after balls with two hands.”
To create more attention to rebounding, Calipari said he had rims with smaller circumferences installed at UK’s practice gym.
Calipari, who talks about self-satisfaction leading to poor play like it’s a mantra, questioned Richards’ body language.
“Look, your body language screams,” he said he told Richards. “It screams. And your body language can move other people’s (body language), good or bad. And his body language has been, like, ‘I’m working so hard.’ ‘This is hard’ And ‘I can’t believe this.’
“OK, that’s what you looked like the last game playing. You were late to everything. You were one-handing everything. I said, ‘You’ve got to come and be bubbly and excited and can’t wait to go.”
The UK Alumni Association plans three get-togethers for fans in New Orleans.
From 5-7 p.m. CST on Friday, UK fans are invited to be at Kenton’s (5757 Magazine St., Suite A) for dinner.
Later that night, fans are invited to go to Razzoo (511 Bourbon St.).
At 11 a.m. CST on Saturday, there will be a gathering at Company Burger (611 O’Keefe Ave.).
UK will play UCLA at about 3 p.m. CST in Smoothie King Arena. It is the second game of a doubleheader. North Carolina plays Ohio State in the first game.
Kentucky vs. UCLA
What: CBS Sports Classic
Where: Smoothie King Center in New Orleans
When: About 4 p.m. Saturday