UK Men's Basketball

Cal tells Cats to focus on present

While applauding his team's quest for an undefeated season, Kentucky Coach John Calipari acknowledged that seeking perfection has a flaw.

The Cats are not playing free and easy. They have become distracted.

"The way I've always coached is day by day," Calipari said on a Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference Monday. "I try not to worry about the past. Rip out the rearview mirror. Have amnesia. Move on. Try to get them to play that way.

"And this team is struggling with that a little bit. When guys miss shots, they seem to miss four in a row."

Of course, Calipari also encouraged the players to seek greatness this season. No Division I team has gone undefeated and won a national championship since Indiana in 1975-76.

Despite the 34-year drought and the widespread belief that college basketball has unprecedented parity, the UK players say an undefeated season is a realistic goal.

When UK players early in the 1983-84 season talked about becoming the greatest team ever assembled, then-coach Joe B. Hall noted that a coach would fear complacency and/or overconfidence.

Calipari seemed to have complacency on his mind when he said, "We talk of dreaming big, but our whole thing is I'm telling them we're 9-6."

Hidden in the 15-0 record (the first such start to a UK season since 1969-70) are several instances of Kentucky getting untied and off the tracks before the train arrived:

■ Down 18 to Miami (Ohio) in the first half.

■ Beating Sam Houston State despite surrendering 18 three-point baskets.

■ Down two points to Stanford with 9.5 seconds left and the Cardinal shooting two free throws.

■ Seeing a 19-point first-half lead narrow to two in the final minute before holding on against North Carolina.

■ Winning in the final minute against Connecticut despite shooting 39.1 percent.

"There are games we played that were like, 'Wow, how did we win?'" Calipari said.

Of course, that can be turned around and interpreted as a sign of an opportunistic and indefatigable team that finds a way to win.

When UK's 12-0 start in 1983-84 fueled a debate about great teams, former UCLA coach John Wooden seemed the ultimate authority. He guided the Bruins to four of the 12 unbeaten records in Division I history: 1963-64, 1966-67, 1971-72 and 1972-73.

Physical ability was not enough, he said.

"It takes balance ... in every aspect of the game," Wooden said in 1983. "Great teams have balance. They can run. They can be patient. They can play an inside game. They can score from outside. They can play the small, quick teams. They can play the big, powerful teams.

"They have a counter for it all."

Certainly, Kentucky has shown versatility, winning an up-tempo game against Sam Houston State and half-court slug-fests with Louisville and Connecticut.

North Carolina has plenty of tall timber. Connecticut and Indiana have guard-oriented approaches.

Stanford has a singular star in Landry Fields.

Wooden's other criteria for greatness included:

■ A dominating big man.

"All the great teams I've seen and had, and I mean truly great, they all had one dominant player," said Wooden, who mentioned Bill Russell (San Francisco), Lew Alcindor (UCLA), Bill Walton (UCLA) and Alex Groza (Kentucky).

UK might lack such a dominating big man, but the Cats' imposing front line has overwhelmed many opponents. In NCAA statistics through games last weekend, Kentucky ranked second nationally in rebound margin (plus 11.5), seventh in blocked shots (7.5 per game) and seventh in shooting (50.2 percent).

■ A great defense.

"A team wins on defense, not offense; offense just gets the most recognition," Wooden said. "A man-to-man defense or a zone with man principles."

UK plays mostly man-to-man well enough to have stifled most opponents so far this season. UK ranks 22nd nationally, holding opponents to 37.8-percent shooting.

As Calipari and others have suggested, Kentucky is not without weaknesses. The Cats are inconsistent three-point shooters (142nd in three-pointers per game), hence the many zone defenses opponents play.

Kentucky also ranks 248th in turnovers (15.5 per game) and 225th in turnover margin (minus 0.8).

Calipari spoke of improvement as a must this week.

How seriously the Cats take the need to improve going forward may be a big key in achieving an unbeaten record.

Or, as Wooden said of the UK talk of greatness 27 years ago, "If they think that in December, that would scare me as a coach."

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