Kentucky Coach John Calipari put the 82-80 loss at Tennessee on Tuesday into a potentially positive context.
“We’ve got all kids,” he said, “and it’s growing pains.”
The key word in that assessment: growing. This latest freshman-dependent UK team must listen to its coach, follow instructions, make smart plays and sacrifice for the good of the group.
When he added the “or else,” Calipari went beyond the familiar threat of a benching.
“We may need to lose a few games in a row,” he said, “and then have them come to my office en masse and say, ‘Coach, we surrender. Tell us what to do because we know we can’t win, now.’”
On Monday, Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said that losing complicates the teaching process.
“When you can do your best coaching and be really demanding is when you’re winning,” he said. “When you’re struggling and you’re losing, you have to be very careful with the psyche because I don’t think there’s any question that doubt will creep in. And I think what you have to do is continue to coach, but now it’s more a mental part of it.”
Calipari suggested that the Cats might have become “arrogant” while winning 17 of 19 games and rising to No. 4 in The Associated Press top-25 poll.
“I’m not getting through to some guys,” Calipari said, “And I told them after, ‘You’ll continue to lose (if no change is made). I’ve done this 30 years. You cannot do the stuff you’re doing and win basketball games.”
Calipari cited the players not getting the ball more to Bam Adebayo, who was a force around the basket.
Maybe worse, the Cats just did not do enough passing to any teammate.
“Usually, it’s pass-pass-pass-pass, in, out, drive, kick, go!” he said. “You know what everybody’s doing right now? Whoever has it, holds it as long as they can until they make a pass, and the pass they want to make is a hero-scoring pass.
“We’re not playing like we were two weeks ago.”
The UK players are not selfish, Calipari said. “They play just playing versus what do we try to do each trip down.”
Calipari saluted Tennessee, which he said played more physical and made it a grinding possession-by-possession game. UK did not sustain its defense.
“On the fourth pass, we stood straight up,” Calipari said. “And they were just driving by us.”
For those fans who would blame the coach, Calipari said he should shoulder the responsibility. And, he reminded reporters, it’s January, so there’s time to improve.
“Great learning experience,” he said. “I’d rather do it in a close win than a loss like this. Sometimes it takes you getting knocked in the head. Either they don’t understand how I want them to play or they’re not accepting it. Sometimes a loss gets them to understand.”
Then Calipari added the bad news. “Sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “. . . We’ve got good guys. We’ve good a good team.”
With UK trailing 69-66 and Tennessee wobbling, Malik Monk took a pass in front of his bench.
Monk’s feet went out from under him as he slipped to the floor on the catch. The walking call gave Tennessee the ball.
Calipari glared at the end of the UK bench.
“I asked one of our guys to wipe the floor,” Calipari said. “I saw it (the wet spot). That’s why I went crazy. I said specifically, ‘Go get that’ because I saw it. Hey, he slipped. We lose.”
For a second straight game, team leader Isaiah Briscoe struggled.
Calipari suggested a return to basics.
“Just be scrappy,” the UK coach said of his advice to Briscoe. “Forget about making all these plays. Just be scrappy, man.”
Calipari said he was happy Briscoe continued to compete and scored two baskets late to give Kentucky a chance.
Single-game tickets for UK’s final four home games go on sale Wednesday at 5 p.m.
Those games are against LSU (Feb. 7), Tennessee (Feb. 14), Florida (Feb. 25) and Vandy (Feb. 28).
Tickets, which will come from the unsold student ticket allotment, can be bought at UK and Rupp Arena box offices, plus Ticketmaster.com, calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 or the visiting team’s ticket office.
According to Jeff Sagarin, Tennessee had played the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation prior to taking on No. 4 Kentucky.
Barnes said that competition benefited his Vols when Kentucky rallied late in the game.