On the eve of the annual Kentucky-Louisville Armageddon, John Calipari acknowledged that the chances for his team to make a statement to the college basketball world are dwindling. So he welcomed freshman Dominique Hawkins' we-got-something-to-prove declaration.
"I'm glad he's thinking in those terms," the UK coach said Friday.
Said Hawkins: "We're trying to prove we can (provide) good competition against any team in the nation. ... If we get this win, there will be a lot of teams looking at us as belonging in the top 10."
As all UK fans know, the Cats are 0-3 against ranked teams this season. No. 6 Louisville represents the next best — and maybe the last best — chance to prove what Hawkins said was Kentucky's true top-10 worthiness.
"How many opportunities do we have for a game like this?" Calipari said before answering his own rhetorical question. "How many are we going to have from here on in? We're just not having that many opportunities."
Judging by The Associated Press Top 25 poll this week, Kentucky will have only three more games against ranked teams after Saturday, and none against top-10 teams: Home-and-home with No. 13 Florida and at Missouri, which has a tenuous hold on a ranking at No. 25.
In assessing his team, Calipari sounded like former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who famously responded to criticism of the U.S. war effort in Iraq by saying, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
Kentucky (9-3) will play Louisville as the same freshman-oriented team that earlier lost to No. 2 Michigan State, No. 20 Baylor and No. 18 North Carolina by a combined 14 points.
"We're not ready to win those games yet," Calipari said in something other than the past tense. "This team in February will not be what it is right now. Guys will get it."
Of course, UK fans would like nothing better than for the Cats to get it against arch-rival Louisville, which not only won the national championship last season but also gave the NCAA Tournament its most compelling human interest story (Kevin Ware's on-court can-do encouragement to teammates after his right tibia broke against Duke in the region finals).
Calipari reminded reporters what he said in the pre-season when many others spoke of UK's seven McDonald's All-Americans meaning a 40-0 record.
"This is a team game," the UK coach said Friday. "Not a collection (of stars). We're only now beginning to be that team. We'll see where we are against a top opponent. We'll see."
Calipari set forth three criteria:
■ Play with a unity of purpose.
■ Play with more energy.
■ Continue to compete no matter what ebbs mix with flows in the game.
There figure to be ebbs. In its first 12 games, Louisville has had 32 runs of eight straight points or better. The Cards have also held opponents scoreless for three or more minutes 31 times.
"When adversity hits, we have to respond ... in a positive way," Calipari said. "We haven't to this point of the season."
No pouting. No grimaces. No slumped shoulders nor lowered heads.
"You can't worry about officiating," Calipari said. "Forget about it. A bad bounce of the ball. A turnover. A missed shot. So what?
"They come down and make two bomb-threes. One banks in. So what? Just play.
"All that other stuff is clutter. Just play. Compete. Battle. You don't know if you're winning or losing, till you do. So don't worry. We still have a lot of clutter. But we're getting better."
When asked about Montrezl Harrell, Calipari saluted the U of L forward's competitive zeal. This led the UK coach to note how well the Louisville players accepted and played to roles. Guards Russ Smith and Chris Jones took the most shots. Wayne Blackshear, Luke Hancock, Terry Rozier and, to a lesser degree, Tim Henderson added three-point attempts. Harrell and Chane Behanan worked the boards.
"What Louisville does best," Calipari said of the role-playing. "Collectively, they know what their roles are.
"The guy on our team who does his role better than anybody is Dominique. What this team needs him to do, he does. We need to get everybody else to understand: Do you know what you have to do to make our team better?"