Could the “unwarranted arrogance” exhibited in the loss at South Carolina two weeks ago become arrogance warranted, or at least understandable, after Kentucky’s inspiring victory at West Virginia on Saturday?
UK Coach John Calipari hopes not.
“I told them (Sunday), you can’t get arrogant about this,” Calipari said at a news conference Monday. “ . . . There can’t be any arrogance here.”
Kentucky can build on the come-from-behind victory at West Virginia, Calipari said. The first chance for such construction comes Tuesday night against Vanderbilt.
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With inconsistency being the mark of his most freshman-dependent team at Kentucky, Calipari made no promises of an upward-and-onward trajectory.
“You talk about it,” he said of his warning about arrogance and how competitive effort fueled the second-half comeback at West Virginia. “But you don’t know. You throw the ball up, and you see if they understand that’s how you attempt to play every game. That kind of fight.”
Sacha Killeya-Jones did not attempt to downplay the thrill of victory at West Virginia. “Definitely, a big win,” he said. “It was a fun weekend, and a fun game.”
Wenyen Gabriel went a step further, saying the victory produced a confidence that “is huge for young guys . . . if we keep playing and just don’t become arrogant.
“If we stay humble and keep working hard every day, I think we’ll continue to get better.”
Calipari credited the staples of basketball — defense and rebounding — for the victory. UK outrebounded West Virginia by 16 in the second half. The UK coach gave Gabriel credit for setting a rebounding tone. And, although obscured by a 34-point game, Kevin Knox contributed seven rebounds.
“That’s what we have to be as a team,” Calipari said.
Calipari also seemed to suggest that the stunning reversal of fortune in the second half, and maybe Knox’s 34-point shooting obscured the reason Kentucky rallied: Better defense and ball-handling. WVU made less than a third of its shots in the second half, and UK reduced its turnovers by more than 50 percent.
Calipari saluted Hamidou Diallo for making the key difference by containing WVU star guard Jevon Carter in the second half. Carter scored 18 of his 26 points in the first half. Fifteen of his points came in a four-minute span late in the half that was largely responsible for Kentucky being behind by 15 at intermission.
“The biggest thing he did, he went to guard the guard,” Calipari said of Diallo. “I got him.’ And then he took pride in it. Now, he’d never done that. This was ‘You’re not scoring on me.’
“And I told him in front of the team, ‘First time I’ve seen you do it.’ Big step for him. That’s a big step. ‘Why shouldn’t you be one of the best defenders?’”
Calipari also saluted how Gabriel did not allow 1-for-7 shooting prevent him from contributing nine rebounds, three assists and three blocks. The blocks equaled a career high.
“‘You were 1-for-7 and couldn’t hit the side of a barn,’” Calipari said as if speaking to Gabriel. “‘It shows you (the shooting) doesn’t matter. You all worry about the wrong things.’”
A moment later, Calipari identified the right thing.
“There was a desperation,” he said of the victory at West Virginia. “And everybody who couldn’t stay up with it, we just didn’t play.”
Vanderbilt at No. 21 Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Vanderbilt 8-13 (2-6 SEC), Kentucky 16-5 (6-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 144-47
Last meeting: Kentucky won 74-67 on Jan. 13, 2018, at Nashville.