The snarky skeptics will request that on the next Cal Cast, John Calipari’s weekly podcast, the Kentucky coach might invite a guest who could help him figure out what in the world is going on with his struggling basketball team.
After all, it’s hard to do podcasts, a book tour, attend Pittsburgh Steelers games and sit for national media interviews, plus find time to coach. So say the critics.
When your team has lost three of its past four games — including that 88-66 Saturday no-show at Florida — and has dropped from first place in the SEC, a conference it was expected to dominate, you open the door for the critics to knock your extracurriculars.
It’s a dumb argument, however. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has managed to have a weekly show on satellite radio and yet win national championships. Louisville’s Rick Pitino, with his cadre of collaborative authors, has churned out multiple books while winning multiple titles.
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Calipari is doing what he has always done: incessantly sell the Kentucky/Calipari brand to the best recruits possible to assemble the most talented team possible, even if that means a team built on one-and-dones.
The trick is to coach the all-star cast to blend and play for each other, something Calipari has done with amazing consistency over his eight years in Lexington. He has been to four Final Fours and won one title. He’s in the Hall of Fame, for heaven’s sakes.
Before Saturday’s game in Gainesville, former UK associate athletic director Scott Stricklin — the new Florida AD — professed amazement at how Calipari starts over with practically a new team each season and makes it work.
Now, however, with this team, the coach has reached a sticking point. Individuals who blended so well so early, who shared the basketball in a collective effort that dominated opponents for nearly the first two months of the season, appear to have splintered into one-on-one instead of all-for-one.
“We’ve got to get back to the way we were playing,” Calipari said Saturday.
The numbers don’t lie. Early this season, UK posted astronomical assist numbers — 25 against Cleveland State, 24 against UT-Martin, 33 against Arizona State, 24 in the SEC-opening romp at Ole Miss. That stat has nosedived, especially on the road. UK made eight assists in a close win at Vanderbilt. It was credited with a season-low seven Saturday night.
Calipari continued to lament his team’s tendency to make easy plays hard. “Cute” was one description. There are too many lob passes, no-look deliveries, drives deep underneath the basket with no clear purpose. Five times this season Kentucky has failed to average a point per possession, which is the baseline number for offensive efficiency. Three of those have occurred in the last four games.
Fact is, Kentucky isn’t good enough defensively to survive a poor offensive effort. On Saturday, the Cats accomplished the triple-doubly bad: bad offense, bad defense and bad rebounding. Lack of effort surely figured into the rebounding. Seeing Malik Monk laughing on the bench as the clock ticked down didn’t help.
The bad news is, this Kentucky team is not as good as we were initially led to think. The good news is, it has plenty of national company. UK was one of six AP top-10 teams to lose Saturday, matching a record for the most in a single day.
So with no clear superior force on the horizon, this year’s title will go to the team that gets it together in March, when it matters most, and the coach who can figure out how to get that done. Podcasts, book tours and other such endeavors aside, that’s where a coach like Calipari earns his big bucks.
LSU at Kentucky
7 p.m. (ESPN)
Kentucky offensive stats and points per possession
Stephen F. Austin
vs. Michigan St.
vs. Arizona St
vs. North Carolina