UK Men's Basketball

Even with huge leads, Calipari wants Cats to maintain intensity

Kentucky Wildcats forward Trey Lyles (41) put in two of his 14 points as #1 Kentucky defeated  Grand Canyon 85-45 on Friday November 14, 2014  in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Trey Lyles (41) put in two of his 14 points as #1 Kentucky defeated Grand Canyon 85-45 on Friday November 14, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Not good. Never made extra passes. Kind of reverted. Ran from the "physicality." Free-lanced rather than played within the "scheme."

With all the post-game criticism from Mr. Negative (aka Coach John Calipari), it was easy to forget that No. 1 Kentucky won its season opener by 40 points.

Junior big man Willie Cauley-Stein helpfully interpreted: Calipari wasn't so much over-reacting (although he may have laid it on a little thick) as anticipating how similar lapses could spell defeat in future games.

The message: UK won its two exhibitions by an average of 58.5 points and then routed outmanned Grand Canyon 85-45 Friday, all of which masks the need to play better in the future ... or else.

"The games we've played so far, we're up by too much at the beginning," Cauley-Stein said. "When the second half takes over, we're up by 20 already. You don't realize you're getting beat in the second half or you're only winning by five (points) in the second half.

"When you play a really good team that is equivalent to you, and you're only up by two at halftime ... , then it's like you're playing a whole other game from the get-go. And there's no room for the error."

Calipari said he expected stretches of less-than-ideal play. Indeed, only the day before, he all but welcomed flaws as he recoiled from the idea of playing too well too early.

Cauley-Stein acknowledged that lopsided early victories might lull Kentucky players into a false sense of security. "Sort of," he said.

That's where critical Cal comes in.

"But our coaches don't let us (get too secure) ... ," Cauley-Stein said. "We can be up by that much, but they're still killing you on little plays that don't change the game that much because we're up by so much. But in a close game, that's the whole game-changer.

"They're letting you know, when that happens, that's a game-changer. You're coming out even though we're up by 40."

Calipari acknowledged the difficulty in staying intense when the team leads 43-16 at halftime. "It's hard when you're up 25 or 30 to just keep doing it," he said.

As Calipari might say, it's about creating habits now. Cauley-Stein voiced confidence that the habit of staying on task no matter the score will be formed.

"It's tough, but you've got to," he said. "If you're young, that makes it worse because you're not used to that. You're not used to having to play at a level where the coach wants you to play all the time. And it just comes with the experience of playing the college-level game. As you get older, you realize what the coach is saying, and it'll just come."

Kentucky's November loss to Michigan State last season accelerated the learning, Cauley-Stein said.

"We're down 14-0 and you're, like, what just happened?" he said. "That's what's got to happen for those dudes to really think about (staying on task).

"Once it gets harder, then dudes are going to find out it's real."

With the anticipation of reality hitting home Tuesday against No. 5 Kansas, Kentucky first plays Buffalo on Sunday.

Buffalo, which is coached by a former Duke icon, Bobby Hurley, opened its season with a 69-67 victory over visiting South Dakota State on Friday.

The victory eased the Bulls into a new era. The program's career scoring leader, Javon McCrea (2,004 points), graduated last spring. He was the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year last season.

Justin Moss, a 6-foot-7 junior-college transfer who played a reserve role last season, scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against South Dakota State. He might have had more points and rebounds had he not fouled out with almost four minutes left.

Jarryn Skeete's basket with 44 seconds left won it for Buffalo. Sophomore guard Shannon Evans, with 17 points, was the only other Bull in double figures.

Buffalo, which won the MAC's East Division last season, is in regroup mode. Besides McCrea, the Bulls must replace Joshua Freelove, who led the league in three-point baskets, and point guard Jarod Oldham.

"Our offense, like last year, I think is a work in progress," Hurley said after Friday night's victory. "And I think it will continue to get better as the year progresses."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader