A much-needed road victory over Arkansas on Thursday does not yet constitute a complete turnaround for John Calipari’s expectation-confounding Wildcats, but it’s a start.
And it’s especially good timing.
“I’m glad we played like we did, because we have a little confidence,” Calipari said Friday. “If we didn’t have a little confidence going into this game …”
The UK coach then paused, smiling, and let out a comical noise that expressed both relief and the realization that Saturday’s opponent, Vanderbilt, will be no pushover.
“Because they’re good,” Calipari said of the Commodores. “They’re good.”
Vanderbilt came into the season as a nationally ranked team and a trendy pick to keep Kentucky from repeating as Southeastern Conference champs. The Commodores have had some troubles — compounded by injuries, particularly to starting big man Luke Kornet — but he’s back and Vandy seems to be on the right track after consecutive victories over Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee.
UK, meanwhile, is still just a few days removed from that head-scratching collapse at Auburn, a microcosm of a season that has left Calipari constantly searching for answers.
On Friday, he merged the oldest mantra of his head coaching career — the “Refuse to Lose” slogan from his UMass days — with the more recent emphasis on “winning plays” that has dominated his comments on this season’s team.
“In this game, we just said, ‘Man, you gotta refuse to lose. You gotta listen. You gotta fight,”’ Calipari said. “And the only way you can do that is together. We know what the game plan is, and we do it. … And the guys did a great job.”
This season has certainly been a process for Calipari, and Thursday was one of the high points — a breakthrough, perhaps, for a team that has needed more guidance than past squads.
Calipari said Friday that even the shootarounds aren’t coming easy for these Cats.
“And it wears you out,” he said. “It tires you out. You can’t just stand there and watch. And you can’t let them just play like they want to play. You have to stop them. Because if you let ’em do what they want to do, you cannot win. You’re not winning.”
For all the highlights of Thursday night’s victory in Fayetteville, there were plenty of examples that didn’t quite live up to the “winning” basketball Calipari has been preaching.
He was asked about the recent foul trouble his bigs have been getting in (Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress were virtual non-factors because of it Thursday).
“You gotta be in a stance,” Calipari said. “You gotta play the guy before he catches. Most of it is you’re in the wrong place because you’re standing straight up and down. And when you try and play him after he catches the ball, you’re going to foul.”
The UK coach was asked about freshman guard Jamal Murray, who had his moments Thursday but still finished 7-for-18 from the floor and is still more prone to offensive freelancing than Calipari would like.
“That’s why he’s here,” he said. “I put him in positions yesterday. Some of them, he did all right. Others, he reverted. He’s learning. He’s learning what it means to play winning basketball. And I’ve got to teach. I’ve got to do a better job with him.”
Calipari was still lamenting his team’s failure to get back on defense at a critical time late in that Auburn game, and he made a promise that anybody who makes things harder on point guard Tyler Ulis won’t be in the game long.
“If you have a shot and you quickly throw it back to Tyler because you don’t want to shoot it? You’re out. You’re not playing,” Calipari said. “And I did it twice last night. You’re out. You’re not doing that to him.
“I’m putting all of this on his shoulders, and you’re giving him more?”
Calipari acknowledged the dynamic of this team is not what he thought it would be — freshman Skal Labissiere is not a back-to-the-basket big man, for example — but that doesn’t mean expectations go away.
It just means more tinkering in the weeks to come, and possibly more shakeups in the rotation, as the search for winning basketball continues. Thursday’s game marked a small step in that direction.
“It’s what my job is,” he said. “I gotta teach them. I’m not afraid of it. It is what it is. I told them, ‘I’m going to have fun with this.’ … Couple guys here either got to step up and play or take a back seat and be the reserve.
“So we gotta figure out if we got guys in reserve roles, that’s where you need to be. Doesn’t matter if you’re a senior or freshman. Doesn’t matter. Guys gotta go do their thing. And that was the first step to it.”
Vanderbilt at Kentucky
When: 4 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Vanderbilt 11-7 (3-3 SEC), Kentucky 14-4 (4-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 140-46
Last meeting: Kentucky won 65-57 on Jan. 20, 2015, in Lexington.