UK Men's Basketball

Calipari: Veterans must lead the way

Kentucky coach John Calipari reacted to Georgia making a steal and basket as Kentucky defeated  Georgia 66-60  on Saturday January  29, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky coach John Calipari reacted to Georgia making a steal and basket as Kentucky defeated Georgia 66-60 on Saturday January 29, 2011 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

With games at Mississippi on Tuesday and Florida on Saturday, Kentucky Coach John Calipari again told his veteran players to lead the way. A pedestrian 2-3 record on the opponent's court this season might have served as a conversation starter.

"It's you guys," Calipari said. "It's not those freshmen."

Freshmen may be UK's top three scorers, but what passes for graybeards must make the critical difference.

"If the freshmen play well, we'll win," Calipari said. "If they don't play well, we have to win anyway."

That's where senior center Josh Harrellson and junior wings Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins come in.

"This is your team," Calipari said he told Kentucky's veterans. "You understand what it means to go on the road and play in this league."

What the freshmen know about the road in the Southeastern Conference are defeats at Georgia and Alabama and a wobbly victory at South Carolina that came uncomfortably close to slipping away.

Liggins noted UK's freshmen haven't played as well as they're capable of on the road. He attributed that understandable occurrence to "just the atmosphere of seeing a different crowd (and) that anxiety of playing on the road."

Liggins acknowledged he wasn't immune to a similar case of nerves when he was a freshman. Most memorable was Liggins' "freshman-itis" at Ole Miss two years ago. He made only three of 16 over-eager shots (one of seven from three-point range in a season he made only 23.5 percent from beyond the arc).

"I was kind of nervous," Liggins said in recalling that 85-80 loss to the Rebels.

The debacle for UK proved to a turning point for the season and the program. The Cats went into the game 5-0 in the SEC, and Billy Gillispie had been named co-coach of the year in the league the previous season. The loss was the start of UK's 3-8 tumble the rest of the way in SEC play. Kentucky fired Gillispie after the season.

Or as Liggins put it, "Everything went downhill for us."

Brandon Knight suggested this year's freshmen are becoming adjusted to playing road games.

"I think it's coming along better," he said. "We were able to get our first win on the road, so I think we know what to expect, when we come out and how to go about it and how to approach it."

Of course, Calipari is all about, as he puts it, demonstrated performance.

A reporter noted that UK's older players are veterans in name only. Harrellson had a career average of 7.2 minutes played before this season. Liggins averaged 4.0 points in his first two seasons. Miller averaged 6.5 points.

None did any heavy lifting.

Calipari countered by saying each was playing better than ever.

"But I want more because I think they're capable of more," he said. "It's time for them to step up. You're better than you've ever been in your life. Now let's do this on the road. We're relying on you."

Ole Miss is traditionally a difficult place for visiting players, veteran or otherwise. Not this season.

Coach Andy Kennedy lamented the Rebels' poor shooting, a factor he cited in his team's surprising 0-3 home record in SEC games.

"We've not shot the ball well at all at home," he said, "which is surprising. Typically, you're more comfortable at home and you have better offense at home. I don't know if it's putting pressure on ourselves or playing tight."

The poor shooting has affected the defense, Kennedy said. The Rebels ranked at the bottom in points allowed, opponents' shooting overall and three-point shooting in league games going into last weekend.

When asked if he'd consider practicing more in the C.M. "Tad" Smith Coliseum, the site of home games, rather than an on-campus practice facility, Kennedy said, "We've tried it all."

That included extra shooting and full practices in the so-called "Tad Pad."

The Rebels had almost six full weeks off during the holidays to have extra time to shoot.

"I honestly think it's between the ears," Kennedy said. "Shooting is a fickle mechanism."

In losing 74-57 to visiting Tennessee last weekend, Ole Miss made only 26.7 percent of its shots. The Rebels had five assist and 16 turnovers.

If Oxford is no longer much of a basketball hurdle, that fits into Calipari's view of a wide-open SEC race. No team is four points better nor worse than any other of its league brethren.

"I'm looking around, everybody's getting beat," he said. "Everybody's in close games. There's no one (dominating), so why not us.

"That's what I've been saying: 'Why not us?'"

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