The calm before the storm. That was the mood Wednesday at Kentucky as players and coaches returned to the practice court after a three-day holiday timeout.
“I think it was good we took a little break,” Marcus Lee said. The Cats needed to step away “to get our minds re-set,” he said. “We do it every year and I think it always helps. I call it our half-way point.”
Of course, Kentucky immediately dives into the deep end Saturday with a game against archrival Louisville. Then UK begins Southeastern Conference play with Ole Miss coming to Rupp Arena followed by road games at LSU and Alabama.
After Kentucky lost to Ohio State last Saturday, Coach John Calipari said opponents “smelled blood.” Lee welcomed this bloodlust.
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“It’s great,” he said. “I don’t want to play someone who fears us or is scared to play us.”
But first, Kentucky took the annual Christmas break. Many players went home, although Lee said he stayed in Lexington rather than return to his home in northern California. Isaac Humphries, a native of Australia, stayed with the family in Indiana that welcomed him as a high school player last season. Newcomer Tai Wynyard, a native of New Zealand, only arrived last week, so he stayed in Lexington and worked out with assistant coach Kenny Payne.
It was too early to know how or if Wynyard can contribute.
“He’s got to get in shape,” Calipari said. “It’s just hard to play the way we play at the level we play. We’ll have to see (how Wynyard can help).”
Calipari welcomed the break.
“Every team I’ve had, it’s been a good time to get away . . . ,” the coach said. “You come back excited because it’s a long season. I mean, it’s a long season.”
When asked if the UK team needed a break, Calipari said, “(it) didn’t matter. We were doing it anyway whether they needed it or not.”
After a pause, Calipari added, “I needed it.”
Lee and Calipari downplayed the assumption that freshman big man Skal Labissiere needed it. Labissiere has been the focus of fan attention as another freshman-oriented Kentucky team made the transition to top-level college competition.
Labissiere’s adjustment has been assessed and re-assessed by media, fans and coaches.
“Skal’s doing just fine,” Lee said with the tone of a protective older brother. “That’s where most ‘bigs’ are at this point. He’ll come back and probably surprise most (media types). And I feel that happening. It’s just a (matter) of time. I feel that happening.”
When asked if Labissiere’s psyche was bruised and needed time to heal, Calipari said, “I don’t think he’s (hurt) unless he’s reading stuff. Hopefully he’s not.”
Again, Calipari said, the important thing was Labissiere learning that he had a difficult adjustment to make.
“What you find out is this is hard,” Calipari said. “And it’s really hard here. It’s even doubly hard.”
Calipari seemed to suggest that the break could renew the Kentucky players’ enthusiasm.
“I just want them to have a ball playing,” he said. “They’re not. They’re not.
“It’s based on (being) a little tentative here and there.”
Cal to fans: Be classy
Calipari asked UK fans not to use an on-going investigation into a sex scandal at Louisville to taunt the Cardinals Saturday.
Saying the scandal “has not entered my mind,” Calipari said, “I’d tell our fans to enjoy the game. Don’t bring in banners. Don’t bring in posters. You don’t need to do it. Let’s just enjoy the basketball game.
“Let’s be classy. We have the classiest fans, and I would expect that’s how they’ll be in this game.”
The scandal erupted in early October when an escort alleged in a book that former Louisville staffer Andre McGee paid her $10,000 to hire dancers for sex parties with players and recruits.
Calipari’s request for fans to not rub it in followed form. He made a similar request last season when Kentucky played a North Carolina team embroiled in a well-publicized controversy involving charges of academic fraud.
Calipari said he threatened not to coach a game at UMass when an issue surrounding gambling engulfed an opponent.
“I said, ‘If I see one thing, I’ll walk off and won’t coach the game; let’s just play basketball,’ ” Calipari said.
Returning to the game with Louisville, the UK coach added, “We don’t need to relish in anyone’s struggles. And I’ve always been that way. The stuff we do is very hard. Not everyone handles it that way. Some encourage that stuff. I’m not one of those guys.
“Let’s just have some class.”
Louisville at Kentucky