UK Men's Basketball

Calipari calls for paying attention to details, breaking bad habits

Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari  as #18 North Carolina defeated  #11 Kentucky 82-77 on Saturday December 14, 2013 in  Chapel Hill, NC.  Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari as #18 North Carolina defeated #11 Kentucky 82-77 on Saturday December 14, 2013 in Chapel Hill, NC. Photos by Mark Cornelison | Staff

During the heady days of the pre-season, Kentucky's recruitment of a record six McDonald's All-Americans sparked talk of domination and, maybe-just maybe, a 40-0 record. If not something that historic, UK surely would enjoy an avalanche of achievement.

Coach John Calipari hit the reset button on Thursday.

Repeating a theme already familiar just 11 games into the season, he said the Cats must think "we" instead of "me" and — to borrow from the sports lexicon — buy in. Once that happens, the Cats will be "fine," he said. Fine? A noticeably pedestrian bar to cross compared to the grandiose we-are-college-basketball of October.

"Till then, games are going to be a struggle," Calipari said. "I'm used to being up by 20 at half. Doesn't appear that's going to be this team. We're going to be in a dogfight every night."

There's nobody to blame except perhaps Mother Nature.

"They're acting like they're 18 years old," Calipari said in an attempt at wry humor.

Of course, Calipari has built his UK basketball program on the recruitment of freshmen and delivering them to the NBA Draft a year later.

But even ballyhooed freshmen (are there any other kind for UK basketball?) need time to grow and adapt, live and learn.

Conveniently for a team presumably facing many possession-by-possession struggles this season, Kentucky players and coach stressed Thursday the importance of playing well down the stretch of close games.

"A lot of it has to do with execution and playing through mistakes," Willie Cauley-Stein said.

Of UK's 82-77 loss to North Carolina on Saturday, Cauley-Stein said, "We made a bunch of mistakes in the last five minutes and still had a chance to win. We just didn't play through the mistakes. We were constantly making more mistakes because of the last mistakes you made. It just adds up."

Calipari prescribed a "narrowing" of assignments in the final minutes of games. "What you do and what you absolutely don't do," he said in calling for a "more organized offense."

That sounded like more orchestration from the bench. Not so, Calipari said.

"It's just that they have a better idea of the sequences of how we're playing," the UK coach said. "If you don't score right away, what do we do? 'Well, I try to take it and score.'

"No. This is what we do, now. If they stop that, what do we do, how?"

Plan A leads to Option B while leaving open the possibility of Alternative C.

Such attention to detail could make all the difference for a team that has lost three games by a total of 14 points. All three opponents were ranked. None of the three games were played in Rupp Arena.

That might suggest Kentucky does not face a big problem.

Cauley-Stein swatted such a conclusion.

"Nah," he said. "It's a big problem that has to be solved. There's no sugar-coating. We were ranked, too, so you've got to deal with it."

Calipari again spoke of changing habits. Using his knack for catchy labels, he described Kentucky's coach-player dynamic as "Our persistence versus their resistance."

UK players were not rebelling, he clarified. They needed to break habits.

The Cats needed to be more aggressive in seeking transition opportunities on offense and dig deeper on defense.

"At the end of the day, we've got to be a better defensive team," he said. "That's what we need to be, and we're not."

Meanwhile, Calipari set a Churchillian tone earlier Thursday when he tweeted his message of the day: "We can't change the beginning, but we can change how we approach the ending. That's how this team will be remembered."

That sounded similar to the words Winston Churchill used to give perspective to the British Army turning back Rommel at El Alamein in World War II.

"Now this is not the end," he said. "It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

On the smaller basketball scale, Calipari seemed to capture the beginning and end of games and the season.

"I have to fill minds more than the other stuff they're reading or hearing," he said of the players. ". . . I have to overwhelm all those things. I try every day to give them a message and get through to them.

"What do you want this to become? And what are you willing to do?"


Belmont at No. 19 Kentucky

When: Noon

TV: ESPNU

Records: Kentucky 8-3, Belmont 8-4

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