UK Men's Basketball

Calipari expects UK-UNC to be heavyweight bout

It's time for the Kentucky Wildcats to bare their hairy chests.

Pardon the sexism, but John Calipari became macho man this week when talking about UK playing North Carolina in Rupp Arena on Saturday.

"It will be a fistfight inside," Kid Cal said on his weekly radio show. "If they get the better of us around the goal, we're not going to win. If we get the better of them, we have a chance."

The UK coach-turned-fight doctor continued the basketbrawl theme during interviews Thursday.

Comparing the two programs

"I wouldn't be surprised if they get punched in the mouth," he said of his Cats.

It was a thought Calipari welcomed like Muhammad Ali having a Joe Frazier flashback. Aside from winning, of course, he sounded as if he'd like nothing more than watching UK go toe-to-toe with the Tar Heels. He even saw the value of North Carolina landing a haymaker.

"We need to take one on the chin and get knocked out to understand how hard you've got to play," he said.

More than once, Calipari suggested that Kentucky has been more Pretty Boy lightweight than Hands of Stone heavyweight in winning seven games against so-so competition.

Although retooling after last season's national championship run, North Carolina (7-1) still packs a powerful punch with six McDonald's All-Americans and three other players who came out of high school as their state's Mr. Basketball or Player of the Year.

"You're going to see one team (UNC) playing absolutely life and death," Calipari said. "And the other team (UK) trying to do their stuff. Maybe we'll change in the next day and a half."

Calipari didn't sound expectant of such a transformation. He wanted the Cats to define fun as maximum effort. "It's not coming out showtime," he said.

Of course, the UK coach does not want or expect a fight, literally, when Kentucky plays North Carolina.

He simply wants the Cats to understand Kentucky can't expect to beat North Carolina on style points.

UK players who spoke to reporters Thursday noted how gritty defense — not alley-oops and pretty jump shots — will be the determining factor.

"We have to be very alert," John Wall said. "We can't come out sluggish. Not getting back on defense and not closing out on shooters. ... Everything is going to start with our defense. I think we can score against anybody in the country. It's just if we play defense. That's what's going to help you win key games."

Wall acknowledged that each team's preference for a fast pace suggested a high-scoring game. But, he added, highlight material ultimately will be immaterial.

"Yeah, it'll be up and down," he said. "But, you know, like the last four to eight minutes, we'll see who can get key defensive stops. That's what the game will come down to."

To set a tone, Calipari asked his team to practice like its record was 4-3, not 7-0.

"Because we could have been (4-3)," the coach said. "So let's practice that way. Let's not get arrogant. ... We have to settle in and get better."

More than once this early season, Calipari has said the Cats are overrated. The memory of getting pushed around by Cleveland State in Cancun apparently lingers.

"Initially, it stuns us," Calipari said of the rough stuff. "Because we're looking at (opponents) like, 'Man, this is a AAU game. Back off. Man, this is only a warm-up line. What are you doing?' "

At No. 5, it would be hard to claim being underrated. So the Cats accepted the over-rated label.

"I think he still thinks we're overrated," Wall said, "and we do, too. That's something that's motivating us."

Those looking to judge the UK-UNC fight, er, game should watch the jockeying for rebound position, Calipari said.

"The biggest thing is will we go in and fight for rebounds," he said. "They're not coming from a distance to rebound. You're standing next to them. So it's mano mano."

Calipari needs to brush up on his Spanish. Actually, it's mano a mano. But the point came through like a stiff jab to the kisser.

"Is he pushing you into the cheerleaders or are you going to hold your ground?" the UK coach said. "That's the bottom line."

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