John Calipari acknowledged that Florida could beat his Kentucky team Saturday night in Rupp Arena. “I know how good they are,” he said.
But the UK coach said he is not fretting about losing to the Gators, which would be his team’s second straight loss (and third in the last five games).
Nor is Calipari preoccupied with the stinging assessment of his young Cats by ESPN’s Seth Greenberg. His reaction to hearing what Greenberg said about UK players being more concerned about the NBA than college? “I just smiled,” Calipari said.
Calipari’s major concern?
“We’ve got to get our mentality right,” he said at a Friday news conference. “You’ve got to have fun playing and coaching.”
Calipari defined fun as sharing the basketball, showing energy and spirit.
Kentucky, 14-4 overall and 4-2 in the Southeastern Conference, has shown what Calipari termed a lack of fun.
“We’re being defensive when you’re being coached . . . ,” he said. “Let’s have a ball playing and let’s see what it does. Let’s go dive on the floor. Take charges. Make the extra pass. Let’s talk. Let’s high-five.”
Nick Richards, whose 12 points at South Carolina on Tuesday marked his first double-digit scoring game since Dec. 9, acknowledged that he had been thinking too much.
“On every possession,” he said. “I was trying to make every play perfect. Now, I realize that’s next to impossible for us.
“Overall, I’ve got to stop thinking about mistakes.”
PJ Washington acknowledged the recent step back that Calipari has talked about in terms of leadership.
“He just wants me to bring more energy and be more vocal on the court,” Washington said.
Calipari saluted the play of freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, who made a belated season’s debut at South Carolina.
“He played hard,” the UK coach said. “He competed. He went after rebounds in traffic. He was the only one.
“We had a guy play 32 minutes and get two rebounds.”
That was an apparent reference to Washington, who grabbed two rebounds in 33 minutes at South Carolina.
Calipari all but promised to use his bench as a means to get better play and, presumably, his players to have fun. In this scenario, if a player fails to produce, he gets benched.
Calipari acknowledged two handicaps. One is the injuries that have reduced UK’s depth to the point that players had to continue to play because there was no adequate replacement.
“That’s been an issue,” Calipari said. “But now we’ve got guys coming back, and it’s a little bit different now. We’ll just have to see.”
Quade Green, who has sat out the last three games because of a back strain, is a “game-time decision” to play against Florida.
UK also lacks the kind of veteran leadership that helped past freshman-dependent teams. Calipari spoke of players not paying close attention in timeout huddles because they are worried about getting shots and scoring points.
“That’s what the normal 17-, 18-year-old does,” Calipari said, “and that’s what we’re battling.”
With veteran players such as Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis last season or Darius Miller and Patrick Patterson in earlier years of the Calipari era, Kentucky’s freshmen got sound guidance.
“You have some older guys, you have some leadership,” Calipari said. Veterans “who could step up and grab guys and make them change.
“Right now, it’s hard. No one will grab the guy and say, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘I’m going to tell Coach to sit you out.’”
Vanderbilt, suddenly the answer to many of UK’s questions, got mentioned as a player who might lead by example.
“Maybe Jarred becomes that guy,” Calipari said. “We will see.”
Florida at No. 18 Kentucky
When: 8:15 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Florida 13-5 (5-1 SEC), Kentucky 14-4 (4-2)
Series: UK leads 100-38
Last meeting: Kentucky won 76-66 on Feb. 25, 2017, in Lexington.