At Thursday’s news conference, John Calipari seemed to take reporters on a trip back in time. The sweet nostalgia he evoked centered on his UMass teams of the 1990s. The little team that resented being dismissed as an upstart and used that resentment in beating college basketball blue bloods through hard work and sheer will.
As opposed to his Kentucky team in Tuesday’s opening game: the ceaselessly celebrated behemoth that couldn’t stay within 30 points of Duke.
It may sound odd, but Calipari suggested he wants the players representing the winningest program and the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball to play with that I’m-just-as-good-as-you attitude.
“Duke played with a chip,” Calipari said. “They were going to show us they were better, and each individual player was going to show our players they were better.”
The mind drifted to a pregame assumption. Weren’t UK’s freshmen wanting to prove they were just as good as Duke’s much more lionized freshmen?
“They all had a chip on their shoulder,” Calipari said of the Blue Devils with perhaps a trace of envy in his voice. “That’s us my whole career. That’s what it’s been about.
“Did we get arrogant? All of us? Me included? I don’t know. We’re going to find out.”
This mission of self-discovery begins Friday night when Kentucky plays Southern Illinois, a team returning all five starters from a 20-win season.
“A team that can beat us,” Calipari said. “If we don’t play harder than they play, we lose and we move on to the next game.”
In assessing Kentucky’s point guard play against Duke, Calipari mentioned UMass by name. He suggested that neither Ashton Hagans nor Immanuel Quickley were the kind of game-changing point guards UK enjoyed with John Wall, Brandon Knight and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“Shai kind of spoiled us . . . ,” Calipari said of UK’s point guard last season. “Well, we don’t have that guy. He’s not on the roster. Do I play like I played my UMass point guards?”
Calipari defined this as “more of a facilitator than the guy.”
Calipari hit on several ways Kentucky can improve its performance. Better shot selection. Play off Reid Travis in the low post more. Be more active in terms of deflections and forcing turnovers.
But again and again, Calipari returned to effort.
“I told them we’ve got to get five guys who will fight like heck,” he said, “and leave them in and play them as long as they can play. . . . And the rest of you will sub when they need a break.”
How Calipari compared Duke and Kentucky after Tuesday’s 118-84 blowout suggested that effort could compensate for something UK lacks in great abundance. He said Duke had players who could create scoring chances if given space while Kentucky’s players had a greater need for designed plays.
“They didn’t run any plays,” Calipari said of the Blue Devils. Several Duke players — Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett — were good enough to beat a defender.
“We don’t have those guys,” Calipari said. “But I’m telling you we have really good players. We just have to be a little more in-tuned with how we have to play to win basketball games.”
For instance, knowing how to stall an opponent’s momentum or taking good shots rather than bad shots, he said.
“They were the better team,” Calipari said of Duke. “They played as a team. They worked together. We worked against each other. . . . I thought our team, each guy . . . instead of playing for each other, they were trying to get theirs. . . . Guys were acting like it’s high school.”
Calipari compared and contrasted the loss to Duke with Kentucky’s blowout victories in the Bahamas in August. The latter had no game plans, no grind-it-out attention to detail. Perhaps those games bred a feeling of invincibility, which surely contrasted with how the players felt leaving Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“So that may have hurt us more than helped us,” he said of the games in the Bahamas. “This may have helped us more than hurt us. We’ve just got to see.
Mike Morgan and Dane Bradshaw will call the game for the SEC Network.
Southern Illinois at No. 2 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 0-1, Southern Illinois 0-0
Series: First meeting