UK Men's Basketball

Calipari wants Cats to crack code to consistency

UK Coach John Calipari stoked some fire for his Cats, who trailed by 12 late in the first half against Penn on Monday.
UK Coach John Calipari stoked some fire for his Cats, who trailed by 12 late in the first half against Penn on Monday.

Kentucky beat Penn on Monday night. But falling behind by 12 in the first half, then rallying was not the kind of victory Coach John Calipari wanted as a springboard into Southeastern Conference play.

"If we played in a league game and did this, we're down 15 at the half, and it's a struggle now," Calipari said after UK's 86-62 victory. "The other (SEC) team, you know, they're going to grind it a little bit more and make us take chances. And they keep making shots, you lose the game.

"I mean, that's the lesson of this game."

The victory over Penn had a familiar feel. There was Calipari calling timeouts because of defensive lapses. There was a starter, in this case Darius Miller, sitting on the bench as the second half began. There was Eloy Vargas imposing his will during one stretch of the game and at another juncture reaching for a rebound with one hand rather than securing it with two. There was Terrence Jones oozing skill but not intent on dominating the game the way Calipari thinks he should.

Reflecting on the inconsistencies, Calipari said, "You know, it's just the importance of every possession we don't get yet. And young kids don't. Inexperienced players don't."

Good isn't good enough.

"OK, we won by(24)," Calipari said. "I want this team to start understanding, you've got to be a little bit of a juggernaut, and that means five guys, one heartbeat. We are not one heartbeat right now. We are about a heartbeat and a half and a half. We're not bang, bang, bang."

At least not consistently. UK displayed stretches of seamless play against Louisville and Notre Dame. But those games also had faltering moments.

Calipari described the coach-player relationship as a battle of wills. It's a battle the players must know they are destined to lose.

"Your will has to be stronger than theirs, and you're not giving in," he said of a coach's willpower. "And I don't give in."

The day before the Penn game, Calipari noted a common definition of insanity: doing the same thing again and again, and expecting different results.

The UK coach held up Josh Harrellson as a player who tried something different this season and has gotten much better results. Harrellson put in extra work — OK, he was ordered to put in extra work after an ill-advised tweet about Calipari being impossible to please — and he's become a productive player. His 12 points and 11 rebounds against Penn followed 23 points and 14 rebounds at Louisville three days earlier. That made for the first back-to-back double-double of his career.

"He's going after every ball with two hands," Calipari said of Harrellson. "Look at him: Every ball with two hands. And he's leading our league in rebounding. Josh Harrellson is leading our league in rebounding. Because he's changed his habits."

The SEC named Harrellson its Player of the Week for last week, recognition that left Harrellson "pretty shocked."

A career backup who averaged 7.2 minutes per game going into this season, Harrellson said, "If you would have said something about Josh Harrellson being named SEC Player of the Week a year ago or two years ago, I probably would have laughed. ... It's a new year and a new me. So, I guess anything is possible."

Calipari called for Vargas to follow that example. Put in extra work. Diligently do what the coaches ask.

"One hand (rebound), unacceptable," Calipari said. "You're out. That's an error we talk about a thousand times at practice. We do everything with two hands. If your habit is that bad, you'd better change it or you're coming out."

Brandon Knight, whose point guard play (no turnovers in 33 minutes, noted defense on Penn's Zack Rosen) drew praise from the UK coach, noted that players slow to change are not necessarily defiant. They may be struggling with changing habits ingrained from years of playing AAU and high school basketball.

"Oh, it's pretty difficult," he said of the change. "Because that's what we've been doing all our lives. A lot of us haven't really been coached up until this point. It can be kind of difficult if you don't trust or you don't buy in.

"But if you buy in (and) you practice with a mind-set to change things, it'll carry over."

Knight could hold himself up as an example. He's making the transition from primary scorer in high school to point guard.

"Brandon's being a pass-first point guard now," teammate Doron Lamb said.

As requested, Knight is talking more. In the Penn game, he corrected Vargas for trying to rebound with one hand. "As a leader, I need to tell him everything to do," said Knight, who added that his teammates welcome his direction. "They know if I don't, Coach is going to get on me. We have an understanding. I just want the best for them and the best for the team."

Jones has been a tougher nut to crack. Calipari envisions great things for the freshman forward.

"Terrence Jones will be the best player in the country by the end of the year, if he wants to be," the UK coach said. "If he wants to listen and change."