John Calipari offered some potentially unsettling words at Monday’s news conference. After saying that the regular season’s final eight games might present the toughest part of Kentucky’s schedule, he added, “and we’re still tinkering.”
The aims for arguably the least experienced team in college basketball history are familiar: more passing, better defense, a greater sense of urgency.
Calipari spoke of those things heading into the final four weeks of a regular season that includes two ranked opponents (No. 15 Tennessee on Tuesday and at No. 8 Auburn on Feb. 14), two other opponents receiving votes in The Associated Press top 25 poll this week (Alabama and Florida) and perhaps the greatest gathering force in the Southeastern Conference (Texas A&M).
The relative breathers are at Arkansas, where UK has lost three of four games in Calipari’s time as coach, against Missouri, which beat UK last weekend, and against Ole Miss.
“We’ve just got to play a little bit more competitive, a little bit more physical, locked in collectively,” Calipari said. “We’re not. It’s one or two guys breaking down. When you show it on film, it’s really kind of, ouch. Are you watching yourself?”
Calipari recoiled from the suggestion of a repeat of the much ballyhooed “tweak” that got credit for transforming a similarly struggling Kentucky late in the season into a team that played in the 2014 national championship game.
“An adjustment,” Calipari said. “Not ready to say tweak yet.”
If Kentucky wants a model for how to play, it might look at Tuesday night’s opponent. Tennessee’s 33 baskets against LSU last weekend included credit for 24 assists.
Overall, the Vols have had an assist attached to 64.9 percent of their baskets.
“That’s great,” Calipari said. “That’s team basketball. That’s creating for each other. Again, a team that’s been together for a couple years.”
Earlier in the day on the Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference, Calipari said of the Vols, “They’re playing exactly how that team has to play.”
Tennessee (17-5) has won five straight and eight of its last nine games. But as Calipari shied from the word “tweak,” UT’s leading scorer downplayed the notion of the Vols being on a roll.
“I think we’re playing well,” Grant Williams said. “Still not where we want to be. Got a lot of room to improve.”
Coach Rick Barnes said much the same thing while acknowledging that the Vols have a unified approach.
“I think they understand the identity we’re trying to create as a team,” Barnes said of his players.
With that, Barnes offered his own sobering message.
“It’s fleeting . . . ,” he said of any team’s cohesion. “I like my guys a lot. They care.”
Kentucky, with freshmen as its top six scorers, has had an assist counted with 50.2 percent of its baskets. That percentage dropped to 42.9 percent in the loss at Missouri last weekend, and just 24.1 percent in the near-loss to Vanderbilt in Rupp Arena last week.
A couple of weeks ago, Calipari tried to stimulate more passing by announcing that he would count any pass as an assist. In theory, glittery assist numbers would be a siren call that could not be resisted.
It was resisted, which Sacha Killeya-Jones tried to explain by saying, “I don’t think anybody’s playing for stats.”
Hamidou Diallo seems on the way to gaining a reputation for resisting Calipari’s coaching. Television caught the two in a frank exchange of views at South Carolina three weeks ago. Then Diallo seemed to take an ill-advised shot and foul unnecessarily to complicate UK’s attempt to rally in the final minutes at Missouri.
“He’s a freshman, like all these kids,” Calipari said in defense of Diallo. “Every one of them is breaking down one way or the other.”
When a reporter threw out the idea of not starting Diallo, Calipari pointed out how the player gives UK size and athleticism at the guard position.
Calipari did question Diallo’s defense.
“You’ve got to be responsible for your man and our team,” Calipari said. “You have to be where you’re supposed to be when we’re trapping.”
No. 15 Tennessee at No. 24 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Tennessee 17-5 (7-3 SEC), Kentucky 17-6 (6-4)
Series: Kentucky leads 153-70
Last meeting: Tennessee won 76-65 on Jan. 6, 2018, at Knoxville