In his effort to make Kentucky players more tough-minded and physically assertive, John Calipari linked those qualities to what’s surely their main long-term goal: Making it in the NBA.
“I’ve seen guys advance with less skills, less this, less that,” Calipari said on a Southeastern Conference teleconference Monday. “Yet, they fought. They lasted (in the professional basketball). They had 15-year careers.
“If you don’t fight, you’re not making it because it’s too competitive.”
The UK coach lamented his team’s lack of fight in the 77-65 loss at Tennessee on Saturday. He also seemed to sting his players’ male ego, saying the Cats “got manhandled by men.”
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Kentucky, 12-3 and out of the top 20 of The Associated Press top 25 poll, plays Texas A&M Tuesday. The Aggies have potentially one of the SEC’s more imposing front lines with Tyler Davis (6-foot-10 and 266 pounds) and Robert Williams (6-10, 241). Tonny Trocha-Morelos (6-10, 229) is their backup.
The flu sidelined Williams for Saturday’s game against LSU. Williams practiced Sunday and is expected to play at UK, Coach Billy Kennedy said. Guard Admon Gilder is also expected to play after being sidelined.
Expected to contend for the SEC championship, Texas A&M lost its first three league games. Injuries, suspensions and illness have kept the roster in flux.
The revolving door on the A&M lineup might make it difficult for UK to know which group of Aggies to expect.
“You have to prepare for all of them …,” said assistant Joel Justus, who substituted for Calipari at the day-before-the-game news conference. “They’re going to be a team that’s desperate. And they can’t be more desperate than us.”
In the era of one-and-done players, Calipari has regularly said that opponents have tried to push around his freshman-dependent teams. So his post-game comments at Tennessee fit a pattern.
“When you have a bunch of young players, that’s the last piece of this,” Calipari said of instilling toughness. “It’s not skills. It becomes: will you battle?”
Not for the first time, Calipari tried to avoid any confusion about what he means by a player having fight.
“Doesn’t mean fist-fighting,” he said. “It means fight for position. It means being tough and knowing, ‘I’m not fading away.’ It means moving your feet to offensive rebound. ‘I’m not pushing in the back.’ It means the shot goes up, ‘I’m not afraid of contact. I’m going to create the contact.’”
Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew, whose team plays Tennessee on Tuesday, said the Vols’ tandem of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield fit the description of what Calipari seeks from UK players.
“I think if they were playing football or any kind of sport, they would seek out contact …,” Drew said of Williams and Schofield. “They play much bigger than their size because of their strength.”
Coincidentally, Calipari’s laments about a lack of toughness echoed what Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes said about his players after last week’s loss to Auburn. Auburn grabbed 22 offensive rebound against the Vols.
Barnes said his players needed to do some soul-searching after that game. The UT coach said he told his players going into the Kentucky game, “Whether we won or lost, we need to get our self-respect back.”
Justus said the loss at Tennessee necessitated “self-reflection.” UK coaches showed the players individually and as a team video of the Tennessee game. What ensued were pointed questions: What happened here? How can a repeat be prevented?
What Justus said he saw was a different Tennessee team in the second half. “Made it a street fight and not a basketball game …,” he said. “We took a step back. That’s the bottom line.”
As Calipari suggested in Knoxville on Saturday night, Justus spoke of future opponents doing their own film work and being encouraged to try to future games into street fights.
The game will be “exciting for our guys to get back out and play and exorcise some of those demons that were brought out the other night,” Justus said.
The last time UK came off a disappointing performance, the aftermath was dramatic. UK overwhelmed Louisville 90-61 six days after losing to UCLA.
“We were pretty mad,” PJ Washington said of the mood after the UCLA game. The mood after the loss at Tennessee? “Guys were pretty mad,” he said.
Kennedy said he expected his team to be fully challenged in Rupp Arena.
“Kentucky is Kentucky regardless of if they’re mad,” he said.
Rather than a lack of manhood, Kennedy cited the lack of Washington in the second half as the reason Kentucky lost at Tennessee.
“That was the biggest difference in that game,” the A&M coach said. “Had he been on the floor, they wouldn’t have felt they were manhandled as much.”
Texas A&M at No. 21 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 12-3 (2-1 SEC), Texas A&M 11-4 (0-3)
Series: UK leads 8-3
Last meeting: UK won 71-63 on March 4, 2017, at College Station, Texas