Kentucky Coach John Calipari summed up his normal day-before-the-game news conference Friday with a memorable sentence.
“Before you worry about conquering somebody else, you’ve got to conquer yourself,” he said.
Message: Long before Kentucky began planning to win at Florida in Saturday’s regular-season finale, the Cats had to first conquer their fears, their fatigue, the new high-intensity that is Kentucky basketball, their self-doubt.
“You have to overcome stuff that’s holding you back, and not blame anybody,” Calipari said. “Don’t blame a coach, a teammate, a fan.”
The four-game winning streak UK takes to Florida, which followed a four-game losing streak, suggests that the Cats can be considered conquerors no matter what happens in Gainesville.
“You have to conquer you,” Calipari said. “And when you conquer you, you’ll have self-confidence.”
Calipari suggested a hopeful sign came hours before Kentucky defeated Ole Miss in Wednesday’s final home game. That’s when two players who had been struggling, Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel, voluntarily got in extra shooting.
“Wenyen got mad because I pointed out seven times it was the first time he’d ever been out early,” Calipari said.
Interestingly, Florida has had to do its own conquering even though the makeup of the team did not resemble Kentucky’s freshman-dependent squad. The Gators have had their own ups and downs, arguably even steeper than Kentucky in both cases. Florida looked great in winning its first seven games of the season.
And when Florida made 17 of 28 three-point shots during an early-January victory at Texas A&M, Jay Bilas likened the Gators to the Golden State Warriors.
A dramatic downturn came in Southeastern Conference play when Florida lost three in a row and six of nine.
When asked two weeks ago to explain his team’s inconsistent play, Florida Coach Mike White held little back.
“I wish I had the answer, and if I did, we wouldn’t be so inconsistent,” he said. “It’s offense. It’s defense. It’s rebounding. We’ve had certain nights, we’ve been terrific defensively. And we’ve had certain nights, we just get absolutely torched. And we’ve had nights when we set the world on fire making shots. We have games we can’t throw it in the ocean.”
White questioned his players’ competitive spirit.
“I think it’s all a carryover from practice. …,” he said. “(If) this current Gator group has a great practice, it’s an outlier. And it was the opposite last year. We’ve got a group of very introverted guys. I think that’s probably a factor. I’m not sure how competitive this group is. I don’t think it hurts this group enough when we’re not playing well. … We can be a different team from one media timeout to the next, and we’re searching for answers.”
The Gators apparently found answers. In the last two games, Florida beat first-place Auburn and romped at Alabama in its last two games.
“They’re clicking at the right time, too,” Calipari said.
The UK coach said he was not familiar with White’s candid assessment of the Florida team. Calipari suggested it was a case of a coach knowing how his players will respond to criticism.
His own handling of Kentucky’s freshman-dependent team required more of a balance between encouragement and goading.
“I had to just keep telling them, ‘There’s hope,’” Calipari said. “‘We can do this. I’m not shaking. I’m not blinking. You’re going to do this. You’ve got to believe.’
“It’s different when you’ve got young kids. When you have veterans, (you can) go after them a little bit.”
Florida is expected to start a senior in point guard Chris Chiozza, a graduate transfer in Egor Koulechov and three three juniors: KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson and Kevarrius Hayes.
When asked if the UK players were surprised by the use of encouragement rather than, uh, colorful exhortation, Calipari said, “I was yelling at them, too. … I kept coaching. Off the court, ‘I believe in you. But I cannot let you do these things. I’ve got to hold you accountable.’”
No. 23 Kentucky at Florida
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 21-9 (10-7 SEC), Florida 19-11 (10-7)
Series: Kentucky leads 100-39
Last meeting: Florida won 66-64 on Jan. 20, 2018, in Lexington