Before Tennessee took the court to play Kentucky on Saturday, Coach Bruce Pearl asked his players how they wanted to be remembered. "I told them if they didn't beat Kentucky, this won't be a great season," he said.
After Tennessee played with urgency and won 74-65, UK Coach John Calipari wondered aloud if all his players knew what it takes for Kentucky to have a special season.
"We're not playing for 'fun-sies' at Kentucky ... ," he said. "You know what? Certain guys, maybe, can't fit into that."
Then sharing a conversation he'd have with those certain guys, Calipari said, "I love you to death. You're great. Now sit there and cheer for us."
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Noting the noon tip-off, Calipari said UK had "a couple guys asleep" in the game. Those players did not understand the urgency needed against an inspired opponent. He noted how some of the Wildcats were playing AAU basketball less than a year ago.
"They played three games in Vegas," he said. "Play when they feel like it."
Calipari said he would not name names.
Reviewing the loss, the UK coach lauded the efforts of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Darius Miller. He noted how he'd probably play Ramon Harris more, suggesting the senior would consistently pay attention to detail. Excepting an ill-timed (is there a good time?) three-point air ball by Daniel Orton, the freshman contributed five rebounds and effort. Eric Bledsoe had several defensive lapses, but rose to the occasion at "gut-check time," Calipari said.
By process of elimination, that left Darnell Dodson (0-for-5 shooting in six forgettable minutes) and, perhaps, DeAndre Liggins, as prime suspects.
All-American candidate Patrick Patterson did not fit the AAU basketball profile, but Calipari repeatedly implored Patterson to be more productive during the game.
With Kentucky trailing 40-29 at halftime, Calipari said he used intermission to challenge the players.
"I want to see what we are," he said. "This is like an Elite Eight (or) Sweet 16. We didn't play well. We're down 11. Let's see what we do. Let's play it like that."
The reference to the NCAA Tournament was not casual nor coincidental.
"Everything I do during the season is geared toward that time of year," Calipari said. "Everything."
Calipari lamented "too many excuses" made at halftime. His players complained about the Vols being too physical. Their complaints fell on deaf ears.
"Well, do you want to not go out?" he said he told the players. "We can stay here and give them the game. I don't want to hear your excuses. I don't care.
"It's all the growing up you have to do."
Kentucky erased a 19-point second-half deficit. But Tennessee out-performed UK in the final two minutes with the game on the line.
It was the beginning of the game, not the ending, that seemed to preoccupy Calipari's mind. He second-guessed his decision not to conduct a shoot-around prior to the game because of the noon tip-off. Given basketball custom, such a shoot-around would have had to be around 7 a.m. Because UK played late Thursday night, Calipari decided not to have one.
"Two guys were sleeping, sleeping during the whole game," the UK coach said. "When you're in that mode during a game, you can't change."
In his post-game remarks, Pearl noted how Kentucky had to play late Thursday and early Saturday with travel between games.
"I thought fatigue was a bit of a factor," the Tennessee coach said.
But Kentucky arguably played better in the second half: shooting much more accurately, doing better on the boards and holding the Vols to a slightly lower shooting percentage and fewer points.
"No shoot-around was not a good choice," Calipari said before saying of his players, "They're not mature enough and experienced enough to know what you have to do to get ready for a game. If you leave it up to them, they sleep walk."