After a victory over Mississippi State by a deceptive score of 85-63 Wednesday, John Calipari gave his team a warning: To keep falling behind at the start of games is to invite defeat.
"Against a really good team, you're down 20," Calipari said he told the Cats. "And you're not coming back."
Mississippi State, which led 12-2 before the first television timeout, is the lowest-ranked Southeastern Conference team, according to stats maven Ken Pomeroy. The oddsmaker Bovada, which set the odds of South Carolina or Georgia winning the national championship at 1,000-1 this week, considered One Shining Moment for State beyond calculation.
So a Kentucky victory over the Bulldogs seemed inevitable no matter the early deficit.
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But Calipari sounded alarms because Kentucky has fallen behind often this season, and not always been able to pull out a victory: Down 8-0 to Louisville. Down 16-7 to Baylor. Down 19-10 to Cleveland State. And, most memorably, down 10-0 to Michigan State.
"The biggest thing they must learn, and they just haven't yet," Calipari said. "Every team that comes in has unbelievable energy to start the game. We just don't seem to think that matters."
Calipari held out the possibility of infusing more energy at tip-off by changing the starting lineup. But he almost immediately backed off the idea because Alex Poythress and Dominique Hawkins are contributing regularly off the bench. UK has used only three different starting lineups. James Young, Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison have started every game. Willie Cauley-Stein has started the last seven games. Marcus Lee started four games in November.
"But this is like every game now," Calipari said of the slow starts. "And it's the same reason. (Opponents) outrun us. They outwork us. They're more alert to play than we are. Then we kind of kick it in."
Actually, Kentucky has gotten off to some good starts: 8-1 against Northern Kentucky, 17-2 against Robert Morris, 14-4 against UT Arlington, 16-6 against Providence and 9-4 at North Carolina.
Kentucky, which takes an 11-3 record to Vanderbilt on Saturday, contributed to its slow start against State. Despite a clear advantage afforded by its big men, UK took seven three-point shots before the second TV timeout. Averaging 15.6 three-points shots going into the game, the Cats launched 14 from beyond the arc in the first half.
"I think we settled in the first half," assistant coach John Robic said in the post-game news conference.
Robic and Calipari, who spoke to reporters Thursday, noted the rust caused by a 10-day gap in the schedule. But Calipari cited another factor for what might possess a team ranked No. 305 nationally in three-point baskets per game (4.8) to suddenly start firing away.
"Because it's easier than being down and ready and driving the ball," he said.
Calipari added that he issued an ultimatum at halftime. He'd bench a player who took a three-point shot without first looking for opportunities to drive to the basket or pass to a post player. Coincidentally or not, the Cats took six three-point shots in the second half.
Earlier this season, Calipari noted how former UK sharpshooter Doron Lamb typically took five or fewer three-pointers in a game. James Young took 10 against State. That marked the fourth time this season he's taken 10 or more.
"James is a scorer," Robic said. "If he has it going, he has it going. And he has that green light to shoot the ball. If he's down and ready, shoot the thing because he's one of our better shooters."
Young confirmed the green light, although he added that maybe he should have used a ball-fake and looked for a higher-percentage shot against State.
Hawkins, the antithesis of the unabashed gunner, said he could understand how a team blessed with size and power might get caught up in shooting threes.
"Because we feel like we're open," he said. "I used to be the type of player if I wasn't getting shots, I'm going to force up a shot. I have to shoot."
Calipari cut off a reporter who prefaced a question by noting how Vanderbilt has only seven scholarship players available for Saturday's game.
"Stop," the UK coach said. "I had seven last year. Don't want to hear it. I could care less."
Then Calipari added sarcastically, "Everybody felt sorry for us when we had seven."
Vandy announced this week that leading scorer Eric McClellan was not enrolled for the spring semester because of a violation of the school's academic policy. He also led Vandy in steals (15) and ranked third in assists (3.3 per game).
Vanderbilt lost four players last off-season: Kedren Johnson (suspended from school for a year), Kevin Bright (signed to play pro ball in Germany), Sheldon Jeter (transferred) and A.J. Astroth (transferred).
"We've got enough to continue to be competitive," Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings said Thursday. "... No one on our coaching staff or team thinks we're dealing with a hopeless situation."