UK Men's Basketball

As SEC play begins, Calipari's mission is to keep No. 1 Cats motivated

Kentucky head coach John Calipari cheers on his team in the first half. 

The University of Louisville hosted the University of Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014 at Yum Center in Louisville. 

Photo by Jonathan Palmer
Kentucky head coach John Calipari cheers on his team in the first half. The University of Louisville hosted the University of Kentucky, Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014 at Yum Center in Louisville. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

Engaged rather than enthralled. That's Kentucky's overall objective entering the Southeastern Conference portion of the schedule.

As the hosannas mount and SEC coaches all but say resistance is futile, UK Coach John Calipari says he wants his players to concentrate on even more improvement. He doesn't want them enthralled with what they've accomplished so far: No. 1 ranking in all nine weekly polls, 13-0 record and national leader in six statistical categories (and top 10 in 10).

Toward that end, Calipari met with each player and asked each one how he wanted to expand and improve his game.

"Figure it out," Calipari said he told each player. "Spend a day. If you don't know, ask a coach what you can add to how you play.

"And then our job is to help you add that. Now, you're going to have to work. But if you do add, I'll add to how we play."

Then Calipari explained what he was trying to accomplish.

"Why am I doing it?" he said. "I'm trying to keep them engaged."

Calipari used the example of watching video to make the point that working on individual improvement is more likely to keep a player engaged.

"If they're watching themselves, they can stay focused for four or five hours," Calipari said with a slight grin. "Not even go to the bathroom. Just watch.

"If they're watching team video, you get them for three or four minutes."

When asked what skill a player wished to add to his game, Calipari cited Willie Cauley-Stein. Cauley-Stein wants to become a better ball handler, the UK coach said. Theoretically, he'll be working to improve that aspect of his game instead of dwelling on Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy saying Monday that he'd vote for Cauley-Stein as SEC Player of the Year at this juncture of the season.

"OK," Calipari said. "Then you can't run people over and throw lob passes off the shot clock."

Dakari Johnson wants to shoot 12 footers from the elbow area of the court.

"The other day he made five," Calipari said without divulging in how many attempts. "Do I want him off the block? No!"

But, the UK coach added, "This isn't just about us winning."

Andrew Harrison wants to improve his "mid-level" game, Calipari said.

With Kentucky opening league play against Mississippi on Tuesday night, Calipari noted some areas of improvement already achieved. For example: Trey Lyles. "So much better than he was in the last three weeks," Calipari said. "He's not even the same player he was. It's scary how good he's gotten."

Calipari said his attempts to keep Kentucky striving for improvement extended to identifying areas that can be — to borrow a painfully over-used term from the end of last season — tweaked.

"Why am I focused on one or two things every 10 days, 12 days, seven days?" Calipari said. "For the same reason: We just have to keep them engaged."

Before the game at Louisville on Dec. 27, Calipari emphasized rebounding. Particularly, limiting an opponent's offensive rebounds.

Going into the immediate future, UK has "zeroed in on a couple areas" on offense, said Calipari, who declined to identify these areas. "You'll see them," he said.

Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis spoke of driving to the basket area with more purpose.

"Finishing at the rim better," Booker said. " ... We've been throwing a lot of lobs. So teams are going to back up more, obviously. So guards have to finish better. That will open up more opportunities for lobs."

Meanwhile, SEC coaches all but said Kentucky players could also work on how to accept the league championship. They suggested a 40-0 record is plausible.

"Kentucky has kind of separated themselves in the non-conference from the rest of the world, not only our league," Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings said on a SEC teleconference Monday.

Noting how an unbeaten record would be an "exciting storyline," Stallings said, "That's a lot easier said than done. I suppose if anybody could do it, they could."

Florida Coach Billy Donovan said he had only watched Kentucky play once: the first half of the game against Kansas as part of the preparation to play the Jayhawks. From that, he could compare UK favorably to teams the Gators have played: Kansas, North Carolina, UConn, Georgetown and Miami.

Of the impression made from watching UK's first half against Kansas, Donovan said, "Kentucky was definitely head and shoulders above everybody else."

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