The “tweak” is back. Kentucky surely hopes it has the same impact this year that it had in 2014.
UK Coach John Calipari spoke Monday of tweaks that can help his team entering the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments. Three years ago, after a much-ballyhooed tweak, Kentucky went on a Final Four run after having lost four of its final seven regular-season games.
As for this Kentucky team, which begins SEC Tournament play Friday, Calipari said, “We’re definitely not where we want to be. We’ve got a couple practice days here to get some stuff tweaked.”
Calipari called for a “different mentality” going into the SEC Tournament and beyond.
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“I’m in a great space right now,” Calipari said. “So I want my players in the same frame and same mindset that I’m in.”
While Kentucky continued a pattern of inconsistent play in the regular season’s final three games, Calipari took solace in how the Cats ultimately beat Florida, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M despite falling behind early by 12, 19 and 15 points in those games, respectively.
“I’m loving the fact that the team has learned to fight,” Calipari said. “That they stuck together when things looked bleak. And they just kept going and had a will to win, and all that stuff.
“But there’s something that is not quite right that we have a few days to try to fix.”
The three more recent games showed that Kentucky has learned to compete, value possessions and stay united in trying to execute a game plan, Calipari said.
They’ve been down double-digit points in a number of games. And that’s not a recipe for tournament success.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas on Kentucky
“So we learned how we have to play for 40 minutes,” he said. “We just haven’t done it yet. We’ve done it for 20 minutes. That’s why I say we have work to do now looking at it and saying, OK, where we are right now, we’re going to tweak some stuff.”
Other SEC coaches spoke of how consistency is an invaluable component for long-term success.
“It’s huge,” Florida Coach Mike White said. “Something we talk about a lot.”
Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes suggested that consistency can be more difficult to achieve in the postseason.
After noting how his team had grown during the season, Barnes said, “Now, they’re going to learn something else: that postseason play is more difficult, probably, than they can imagine. So they have to realize it’s about getting an edge and being razor-focused. And you better be on edge or it’ll end real quickly.”
On a separate teleconference earlier in the day, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas suggested that Kentucky could be consistent enough to win six games — and the national title — in the NCAA Tournament.
“Well, they can win six games,” he said before adding, “I don’t favor them to do it.”
Perhaps as a helpful component to the mindset Calipari spoke of creating, Bilas said it was better not to think of the NCAA Tournament as requiring six victories against potentially better and better competition. Instead, think of it as a four-team tournament the first weekend, then another four-team tournament the second weekend and then, as the name makes obvious, the Final Four, he said.
“That makes it a little easier to wrap your head around,” Bilas said. “It’s not golf. You don’t have to beat everybody.”
Bilas said it was difficult to say if there was time for Kentucky or any team to develop consistency. But, if continued, the stark momentum changes in several UK games this season can make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament more difficult.
Rallying from 19 points down against Vanderbilt at home is one thing, Bilas said. “You know you can overcome that,” he said.
“They’ve been down double-digit points in a number of games. And that’s not a recipe for tournament success.”
Bilas saw the SEC Tournament as a “pretty darn good barometer” for Kentucky achieving greater consistency in a neutral-site, postseason atmosphere.
Calipari, who is no fan of conference tournaments, acknowledged the SEC Tournament can serve a purpose.
“They matter to try to get you ready for where you want to do,” he said. “Like I keep saying, this is not like if you lose, you die. That’s next week.”
Then Calipari laughed.
If Georgia beats Tennessee Thursday, the Dawgs would play Kentucky in Friday’s quarter-finals.
Georgia Coach Mark Fox did not rule out star forward Yante Maten playing in the SEC Tournament. Of course, Maten has not played since straining a knee inside the first two minutes against UK on Feb. 18.
Maten, whom Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland called the SEC’s “most underrated player,” was Georgia’s leading scorer (18.7 ppg). His 41 blocks still lead Georgia.
Maten has not practiced, but has begun shooting.
Of Maten playing in the SEC Tournament, Fox said, “I don’t know if I could put odds on it: 50/50 maybe. That’s probably unfair for me to even guess.”
As for Maten playing in a subsequent postseason tournament, Fox said, “I’m confident the following week he’d be ready to go.”
When: Wednesday through Sunday
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
UK’s first game: 1 p.m. (EST) Friday vs. Tennessee or Georgia
TV: SEC Network