When it comes to Kentucky’s loss to Seton Hall last Saturday, John Calipari has moved well beyond accentuating the positive. He’s become basketball’s flat-Earth believer. He advocates an outright denial of reality.
“Cal said just basically take it as a win,” PJ Washington said of UK’s 84-83 overtime defeat to Seton Hall.
Calipari explained. With each loss enveloping the Big Blue Nation in disappointment, he wanted to make sure the players recognized positives from the Seton Hall game. UK led by three inside the final 90 seconds of regulation and by two in overtime before Myles Cale’s game-winning three-pointer with eight seconds left.
“If we had done what we needed to do to finish the game, we’d have won the game and everything would be different,” Calipari told reporters at Friday’s news conference. “I wouldn’t be getting the same questions I’m getting now.”
Several of those questions centered on UK’s dependence on one-and-done players.
“‘You need four-year players, ‘You need five-year players,’” Calipari said in teasing reporters. “As a matter of fact, keep them two (years), put them on a (Mormon) mission. Let’s keep them for six years.”
Calipari said he told the players that except for shooting, they had played winning basketball against Seton Hall.
“We’re not that far off,” he said. “That game? We improved.”
For the umpteenth time, Calipari said he liked this UK team. He said the players came to his home Thursday night for a heart-to-heart talk. “We’re making strides,” he said he told them.
In Calipari’s telling, the feel-good extended to recent practices.
“Two good days, lively days,” he said of these practices. “They’ve had fun. More scrimmaging. They’re competing.”
This led to a conclusion.
“I’m not panicked,” Calipari said. “Sounds like some people are panicked. I’m not. I love this.”
Calipari was not all sunshine and lollipops.
“We’re not going to have any blowout games,” he said. “Those are done. We didn’t blow out people you thought we should. Every game we play is going to be a war. . . . We’re not going to have 25-point wins.”
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi and statistics savant Ken Pomeroy expect Kentucky to beat Utah on Saturday.
“If they were to struggle with Utah, that would be a worrisome sign to me,” Lunardi said of the Cats this week. “At home, they should win that game pretty comfortably. I’m not saying by 25, but you should certainly win by double digits.”
Pomeroy gives UK a 90 percent chance of winning. That’s a greater chance than any other remaining game on the schedule. The next-best chance of a Kentucky victory is 88 percent at home against South Carolina.
Utah Coach Larry Krystkowiak put that assessment in perspective.
“When you talk about probability and statistics and things those guys deal in, it really wouldn’t be wise for them to give us much of a chance,” he said. “But I’d always much prefer to be the arrow than the target.”
Yes, Calipari said, he would prefer to coach a veteran team like the ones he had at UMass.
When asked if he could identify prospects who considered themselves four-year college players, he said, “I haven’t met that guy yet.”
UK’s reliance on one-and-done players is also known as recruiting the best prospects, he said.
Utah lost four starters from a team that played in the NIT last season.
Krystkowiak’s description of the Utes might sound like a team with which UK fans are familiar.
“We’re a team that continues to grow, that’s for sure,” he said.
Like Kentucky, Utah will be playing its only game of this week on Saturday. So like UK, the Utes have plenty of practice time.
“We have a lot of things to improve on,” Krystkowiak said. “We have a lot of young kids who are playing, which I know is not unlike Kentucky’s situation.”
One difference: Rebounding. UK ranks second nationally with a rebound margin of plus 15.2. Utah ranks No. 164 with a margin of plus 1.9.
“We don’t have some of those Thoroughbreds to simulate (UK’s rebounding) in practice,’ the Utah coach said. “So you can talk about technique and philosophy all you want. But at the end of the day, those guys might be a little more of an athlete than you.”
Tom Hart and Jimmy Dykes will call the game for ESPN2.