UK Men's Basketball

Calipari says new No. 1 Kentucky might need a loss

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari questioned an officials call as #2 Kentucky defeated Alabama 77-71  on Saturday  January 21, 2012  in Lexington,  KY.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari questioned an officials call as #2 Kentucky defeated Alabama 77-71 on Saturday January 21, 2012 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

With Kentucky on the eve of a return to No. 1, Coach John Calipari spoke to the players about the benefit of losing. Talk about taking the win out of UK's sails.

What he called a "tough road trip" this week (games at Georgia on Tuesday and at Louisiana State on Saturday) led Calipari to look favorably upon defeat. Apparently, so did the thought of watching his team getting pushed around again in getting past Alabama last weekend.

"We probably need a loss," Calipari said Monday of his message to the team Sunday night. "So we'll come together and say, 'We're not losing like this.'

"In other words, getting manhandled. 'That's enough!' "

Kentucky's latest freshman-oriented team might have been pushed around too much to suit the coach. But UK has not lost because of it and returned to the No. 1 ranking earlier Monday in The Associated Press and coaches' polls.

Calipari seemed to suggest this was not an optimal long-term development for a team that, so far, refuses to find its inner Howard Beale: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."

So maybe a loss will do it.

"My thing is, let's take one on the chin," Calipari said. "Now, what's he going to do? Is he going to say, 'It's OK.' I don't think they'll say it's OK. That was my message. ... If this doesn't start changing, we need to take a 'L.' "

Kentucky players made available to reporters had mixed feelings on the return to No. 1. Terrence Jones likened it to a "target" on the team's back. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist smiled broadly when asked about the ranking.

"We're young," he said, "but we're good, too."

Kentucky's last two experiences with a No. 1 ranking were not long-lasting. The Cats spent two weeks at No. 1 earlier this season. A 73-72 loss at Indiana demoted UK to No. 3.

A 68-62 loss to South Carolina — which came two years ago this Thursday — limited the time Calipari's first UK team spent at No.1 to one week.

Kidd-Gilchrist offered a fool-proof way for Kentucky to stay No. 1.

"We just have to win games," he said, "and we'll be No. 1 forever."

Calipari called the No. 1 ranking "a badge of honor" and joked about trying to reach Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, whose team fell from No. 1 after losing at Notre Dame this past weekend. "I was so mad at him," Calipari joked before saying of being No. 1, "It's just an added thing."

In the recruiting process, he tries to identify players who want the pressure and scrutiny that comes with playing for Kentucky (and makes a No. 1 ranking sort of redundant).

"You're hoping we peg kids who can deal with all this stuff," the UK coach said. "... Whether we're (ranked) one, two or 10, that's what it is to play here."

While Kentucky wrestles with the burden of winning passively, Georgia struggles through a season of transition. UK, the only unbeaten team in Southeastern Conference play, reloads after losing three NBA Draft picks off last season's team.

Georgia, which lost four frontcourt players, sits in 11th place in the non-divisional SEC.

"We're not in a position to lose as much as we did ... and not have it cause us some pain," third-year Georgia coach Mark Fox said.

Forwards Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie entered the NBA Draft after their junior seasons. Each warms the Los Angeles Clippers bench. Last season's senior "bigs," Jeremy Price and Chris Barnes, are playing in Finland and Lithuania.

Fox has talked about "patching it together" in the frontcourt with freshmen (Nemanja Djurisic and Tim Dixon) and sophomores (Marcus Thornton and Donte' Williams). The Dawgs rank 11th in rebound margin through five SEC games (minus 6.8). League opponents have made nearly half their shots against Georgia (48.7 percent).

"We have a group that's young," Fox said. "It's not as physical as one day it will be. But we've kind of taken the approach: Let's get better. Let's use this experience to grow."

Freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is Georgia's leading scorer (14.7 ppg) and its first McDonald's All-American since Carlos Strong in 1992. Noting Kentucky's greater height, Fox said, "(Darius) Miller is probably bigger than my power forward and is starting at 'two' (shooting guard)."

With Georgia starting over in the frontcourt, the senior guard tandem of Gerald Robinson Jr. and Dustin Ware could be expected to lead the way. But Georgia has made only 11 of 48 three-point shots in its past two games.

"When they don't go down, that makes it even harder," Fox said.

Meanwhile, Fox looks at Kentucky as "loaded with weapons. ...

"To put up numbers on that team is impressive because there are so many guys who have to share the ball."

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