UK Men's Basketball

‘Fresh legs and fresh minds.’ Calipari prepares Kentucky for postseason all year long.

How is Kentucky basketball playing heading into the postseason?

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team’s 66-57 win over Florida on Saturday, March 9, 2019. at Rupp Arena in Lexington. UK finished the regular season 26-5 overall and 15-3 in the SEC.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team’s 66-57 win over Florida on Saturday, March 9, 2019. at Rupp Arena in Lexington. UK finished the regular season 26-5 overall and 15-3 in the SEC.

In an attempt to make sure Kentucky was fresh for postseason play, John Calipari suggested the players go home for a couple days before preparing for this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament.

The players declined his invitation to take a breather.

During his turn on an SEC coaches’ teleconference Monday, Calipari said this was not cause for concern about UK not being properly rested and ready going forward.

“The whole reason we do what we do and how we do this is to make sure there are fresh legs and fresh minds at the end of the year,” the UK coach said. “That’s the goal. Which means you’re not overwhelming them with practices, not overwhelming them with film.”

In his 10 seasons as Kentucky coach, Calipari has set the NCAA Tournament as the bright, shiny object at the end of a long season. In that sense, the SEC Tournament is incidental.

Calipari dismissed the notion that it might be harder to keep players fresh at a Kentucky, where every shot is examined and a double-dribble can cause fan consternation. He said his players faced similarly unblinking pressure at UMass and Memphis. Those teams were kingpins in leagues that got only one bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s all the same,” he said.

Georgia Coach Tom Crean experienced the grind that comes with a high-level program earlier in his career at Indiana.

“There’s a ton of wear and tear on their minds that you really don’t realize on a day-to-day basis,” Crean said. “The more you go through it, the more you have to realize it.”

Crean saluted how Calipari’s Kentucky teams have usually played their best basketball in the postseason.

Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes had a ready answer when asked about the long season wearing down players.

“They all want to be pros,” he said. “And the NBA is just getting started. . . . They’ve got to understand it is hard and it is a grind. But that’s part of the growing process, the mentality you have to develop as far as the mental focus.”

Barnes suggested the mental approach players must bring to basketball this time of year is “the whole key.”

When asked how a player can stay fresh, Barnes said, “Blocking out anything and everything that isn’t pertinent to what we’re trying to get done as a team. They hear a lot of noise, and it picks up this time of year more than ever.

“And believe it or not, a lot of players can’t handle it at all.”

Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl suggested his team might have the advantage that comes with depth. The Tigers have used a nine-player rotation this season.

Surely no team will have its resilience and willpower tested more than LSU. The regular-season champion had to deal with the death of Wayde Sims in the preseason. Then came last week’s news that LSU suspended Coach Will Wade and sat guard Javonte Smart in the wake of news reports alleging an improper recruiting inducement.

After all that, LSU won the regular-season championship by beating Vanderbilt on Saturday despite the added burden of star freshman Naz Reid being sidelined.

“These guys have been through a lot,” interim coach Tony Benford said. “You can’t imagine. . . . They’ve shown a lot of resilience and toughness throughout the season.”

Benford credited the “unbelievable” leadership shown by Skylar Mays, Tremont Water sand Kavell Bigby-Williams.

“They kind of dedicated the season to Wayde,” Benford said. “Playing for 44,” which was Sims’ number, has been a team slogan, he said.

“It’s a brotherhood,” he said. “This is the closest group I’ve been around in 28 years of coaching at this level.”

Next game

No. 4 Kentucky vs. Mississippi or Alabama

What: SEC Tournament quarterfinals

When: 7 p.m. EDT Friday

Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

TV: SEC Network

SEC Tournament

At Bridgestone Arena in Nashville

Wednesday’s first round

Missouri vs. Georgia, 7 p.m.

Texas A&M vs. Vanderbilt, 9:30 p.m.

Thursday’s second round

Florida vs. Arkansas, 1 p.m.

Auburn vs. Missouri-Georgia winner, 3:30 p.m.

Mississippi vs. Alabama, 7 p.m.

Mississippi State vs. Texas A&M-Vanderbilt winner, 9:30 p.m.

Friday’s quarterfinals

LSU vs. Florida-Arkansas winner, 1 p.m.

South Carolina vs. Auburn—Missouri-Georgia winner, 3:30 p.m.

Kentucky vs. Mississippi-Alabama winner, 7 p.m.

Tennessee vs. Mississippi State—Texas A&M-Vanderbilt winner, 9:30 p.m.

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Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball beginning with the 1981-82 season to the present. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame.
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