UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Calipari's challenge is keeping Cats interested between the big games

Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) puts in a jump hook in the lane  as #1 Kentucky defeated #5 Kansas 72-40 on Tuesday November 18, 2014  in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) puts in a jump hook in the lane as #1 Kentucky defeated #5 Kansas 72-40 on Tuesday November 18, 2014 in Indianapolis, IN. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

Kelly Wells nailed it at Kentucky's first exhibition game. The Cats had crushed Pikeville 116-68. Afterward, the Bears' coach was asked to identify possible UK weaknesses. He could not, but did offer a word of caution.

"I think there will be some times where they have to not get fat-and-happy," Wells said. "They have to be hungry all the time and all night. There will be nights throughout a college basketball season when you just don't have it; somebody gets hurt, injuries and rotations."

Wells smiled.

"I would like to have some of the problems that they have," he said.

Not to worry, John Calipari's on it. No coach in America better anticipates trouble and devises alternative routes. Calipari isn't a problem-solver so much as a problem-tackler.

Thus the Kentucky coach, knowing his 2014-15 team would be the most talented in the nation, ramped up the non-conference schedule, surely not just to challenge his top-ranked Cats, but to make sure his club pays attention.

We're not talking about the current stretch. True, Boston University was better than expected Friday night, trailing Kentucky 46-44 with 16 minutes remaining. Terriers Coach Joe Jones worked a smart game plan.

Sunday opponent Montana State shows up all the way down at No. 330 in computer whiz Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistical rankings, however. Tuesday's opponent, UT-Arlington, ranks No. 219.

Instead, reference last Tuesday when a locked-in Kentucky showed its capabilities when hitting on all cylinders. No. 5-ranked Kansas, full of tradition and talent and a marquee name, grabbed UK's attention. It showed. From the opening tip, it showed.

There will be several more of those games before the Cats embark on SEC play. (More on SEC play later.) Providence, Texas, North Carolina, UCLA and Louisville populate the Big Blue basketball calendar. We critics of the non-conference schedule in years past, especially the home schedule, must pay tribute now.

There is diversity in that list. Providence is from the rough-and-tough Big East. Texas is from the talented Big 12. North Carolina, possibly the one team that can at least challenge Kentucky in terms of size, is from the ACC. UCLA is from the finesse-oriented Pac-12. And Louisville is, well, of course, absolutely, Louisville.

The Dec. 5 game against Texas is of particular interest. Rick Barnes has his best team in a while. Despite losing point guard and leading scorer Isaiah Taylor to a wrist injury Thursday, the Longhorns captured the 2K Classic by beating Iowa 71-57 and California 71-55.

With Taylor missing Friday, Jonathan Holmes scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the win over Cuonzo Martin's Golden Bears. Talented rookie big man Myles Turner will only improve.

Let's get back to the Cats, however, and the complacency topic. It's one thing to coach a talented team. It's another to coach a team that after three games caused people to seriously debate whether Kentucky could beat the NBA's worst team.

Could the Cats beat the woeful Philadelphia 76ers? Of course. One game, anything's possible. No way even the best college team could beat an NBA team on a consistent basis. Nate Silver's Fivethirtyeight blog crunched the hypothetical data and determined that in a seven-game series, Philadelphia would beat UK 78 percent of the time. Sounds right.

Calipari knows the players hear such talk. "Dialogue" he called it last week. Calipari being Calipari, he wants to control the dialogue. Very little he says hasn't been planned beforehand. There's a smart method to his madness.

There's a smart method to his scheduling, as well. Because Buffalo and Boston weren't big names, Kentucky didn't bring its A game. The Cats must learn to play against such opponents, but not to the point where too many cupcakes are bad for the system.

You need the right mix to keep a team, which will continue to get a lot of attention, to keep paying attention to what's important.

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