Lack of consistency. Insufficient competitive spirit. Not good enough to put it on cruise control. The absence of a quality not normally associated with Kentucky basketball: desperation.
On a Southeastern Conference teleconference Monday, UK Coach John Calipari hit on familiar themes that remain unresolved. He took hope in two developments.
Reserve guard Dominique Hawkins is expected to return to practice soon, though he sat out again Monday night. He has been sidelined since sustaining a high ankle sprain against Ole Miss on Jan. 2.
Calipari suggested that Hawkins can boost Kentucky’s inconsistent energy level, a quality most in need against consistently zealous opponents.
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“Whatever is holding you back from really high-energy play, you’ve got to figure it out,” Calipari said, “because … we’re facing teams playing like their lives depend on it. And we’ve got to be a desperate team, too.”
Freshman Skal Labissiere is making progress, Calipari said. Labissiere, the focal point of fan impatience, reminded everyone last weekend why he was the darling of the recruiting world. In his first 10 seconds on the court in the second half at Auburn, he blocked a shot, then outran everyone and dunked a lob pass in transition.
“He’s finally got the pressure off him,” Calipari said of Labissiere. “So just play, now.”
But Calipari cautioned against any expectation of Labissiere suddenly becoming the fully-formed post presence that Kentucky so desperately needs.
“I don’t want it to be 30 or 40 minutes in games, now, because he’s not ready for that,” Calipari of Labissiere’s immediate contribution. “But if he can go 15, 20 minutes, and really help our team, then it’s going to change his mentality and it’s going to help us immensely.”
Calipari again acknowledged that inconsistency had hampered Kentucky and put undue pressure on point guard Tyler Ulis.
Without mentioning names, Calipari said UK had “a couple guys — Alex Poythress? Marcus Lee? — not doing what they’re capable of doing every game. It puts (Ulis) in a bad spot. He has to make plays or take shots that he shouldn’t have to take. But he wants to win so bad, he does it anyway.”
Ulis came away from the loss at Auburn on Saturday feeling he should have done more, Calipari said.
Calipari disagreed, and cited a sequence inside the final two minutes as an example. Ulis drove and somehow banked in a go-ahead shot over Tyler Harris, who is a foot taller.
“Then our team doesn’t run back … ,” Calipari said.
Auburn countered eight seconds later with a transition basket scored by Kareem Canty while being fouled by none other than Ulis.
Kentucky continues to search for answers.
“You’re trying to really get guys to settle into roles,” Calipari said. The players must balance trying to out-play an individual opponent while staying within the team concept.
“Getting guys more consistent,” Calipari said. “And what does that mean? How do we do that? What if they’re not capable of that? Then how do we play the game anyway?”
Kentucky’s inconsistency becomes painfully apparent during what Calipari calls “winning time.” He noted that UK nearly lost to Mississippi State after leading by 20 points in the second half. At Auburn, UK lost after leading by 12 in the second half.
“Historically, my team’s up 10, it’s death for the other team,” Calipari said. “That’s not the case right now.
“It is young guys not understanding winning basketball at crunch time. But that’s what we’ve got to work on, and that’s why it’s a process. And the only way you get through it is experience. But veterans will help you win games as you’re learning and growing that way.”
As he did in the postgame meeting with reporters at Auburn, Calipari said that Kentucky had time to turn it around.
“I’m not panicked in any way,” he said.
Calipari again pointed out that Kentucky cannot duplicate the dominance of last season.
“It’s just convincing guys there’s got to be a consistency of play,” he said. “Your teammates have to know what you’re bringing to every game. And, at the very least, it’s fight and battle and compete.”
Calipari likened this Kentucky team to the 2013-14 UK team. That UK team lost four of its final seven regular-season games, then advanced to the Final Four. Then and now, Kentucky had issues revolving around winning time, consistency of play.”
“We almost ran out of runway,” Calipari said, “and we got the plane down.”
Kentucky at Arkansas
7 p.m. (ESPN)