Associate Coach Kenny Payne substituted for John Calipari at a news conference previewing Kentucky’s game at South Carolina on Tuesday night. Given recent history, it would not have been surprising to learn Calipari was too busy studying relaxation techniques to speak to reporters.
In two of Kentucky’s last three games at South Carolina, referees ejected Calipari. UK expects more physical play from the Gamecocks in this season’s only meeting.
“They’re going to try to rough us up,” Payne said of the Gamecocks.
Wenyen Gabriel echoed the sentiment. “They definitely swarmed the paint …,” he said. “They try to bulldoze you.”
The combination of Calipari’s volatility, South Carolina’s tough mindedness and UK’s freshman-dependent roster led Payne to joke (?) about the possibility of another ejection. When Calipari told the players how Payne came in relief and guided UK to victory in Columbia two season ago, Payne said he yelled out, “Don’t put me out there with these puppies.”
For much of the season, Calipari has spoken about UK’s puppies, er, freshmen and sophomores needing to show more competitive zeal.
“Kevin (Knox) has shown a tendency to shy away from contact,” Payne said. That was one reason UK has had Jarred Vanderbilt defend Knox in recent practices. The instruction to Vanderbilt? “Be as physical as you can be,” Payne said.
Sacha Killeya-Jones did not sound fazed by the prospect of South Carolina being physical.
“I think we’re definitely ready,” he said.
Payne said that UK players must respond with what he called “winning basketball.” In rebound situations, the coaches will look to see “who’s hitting who first?” he said. Also who’s setting solid screens? Meeting passes? Penetrating a collapsing defense and passing to an open teammate on the perimeter?
South Carolina Coach Frank Martin finds his team’s reputation for physical play open to misinterpretation.
“We are physical,” he said. “We don’t quit on plays. We box out. We rebound. We don’t stand and watch. We don’t get out of the way defensively. We don’t allow you to catch it where you want to. …
“When people say that physicality means we don’t play within the rules, that’s when I get perturbed about it.”
Speaking of perturbed, Kentucky’s last game at South Carolina came on Feb. 13, 2016. Referee Doug Sirmons ejected Calipari with 17:34 remaining in the first half. There was an apparent carryover from Sirmons having worked UK’s game at Kansas two weeks earlier. At Kansas, four UK players fouled out and Kansas shot 47 free throws.
Then at South Carolina, several players and coaches restrained Calipari from his seeming intent to fight Sirmons.
But Payne, who substituted for Calipari at that postgame news conference, did not mention Sirmons in his analysis of UK’s 89-62 victory at South Carolina. Toughness was on his mind.
“That team wanted to physically intimidate us,” Payne said of South Carolina. “That team wanted to beat us up and show … that we are soft.”
Whether or not Calipari wanted to get thrown out, both sides said the ejection set the tone for a rough, tough competition.
“I thought it set a fire within our guys,” Payne said of Calipari’s ejection. “I thought they played with (a feeling of) ‘you tried to take one of our guys out. We’re coming out and we’re going to play with more energy and more effort.’”
Payne called South Carolina the “toughest, fighting-est” team in the league.
“They win games because they absolutely beat you up,” he said. “For us to play the way we did makes a statement of who we are.”
Martin credited Kentucky for proving it was still the SEC’s heavyweight champ. “We got thrown around like little ragdolls,” he said.
Calipari has repeatedly called for Kentucky to play with competitive zeal.
“When Cal has older teams, they’re physical,” Martin said Monday. “They don’t quit on plays. They screen. They rebound with the best of them.”
Calipari was also ejected when Kentucky played at South Carolina in 2014. That ejection marked a turning point in a terrible game for Kentucky. After he left, the Wildcats responded with a 28-17 run.
But South Carolina, which would finish next to last in the SEC that season, won 72-67.
UK fans with long memories might recall Kentucky’s first encounter with a Martin-coached team. On Nov. 28, 2008, his Kansas State team made Kentucky sweat — and not because of desert heat — in a game played in Las Vegas.
Hounded ferociously by Kansas State, Kentucky committed 31 turnovers, the most by a UK team since committing 33 at LSU on Feb. 27, 1982.
South Carolina’s reputation as a physical team has endured. The Gamecocks won 64-57 at Georgia on Saturday despite making only 27.1 percent of its shots (the worst accuracy in Martin’s six seasons).
“South Carolina is a very good defensive team,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said afterward. “We anticipated that it would be a slugfest. And when you have a game like that, you have to do things like rebound and make free throws, and we didn’t do that.”
No. 18 Kentucky at South Carolina
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 14-3 (4-1 SEC), South Carolina 11-6 (2-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 51-11
Last meeting: Kentucky won 85-69 on Jan. 21, 2017, in Lexington.