UK Men's Basketball

Cats losing leads, but not their belief in happy ending

Exhorting the assistant coaches to be more enthusiastic. Cutting off the assistants’ effervescence because the zest for life must come from the players. Declaring a time for soul searching. Playing the perspective card by reminding the Big Blue Nation that it’s a “process” for Kentucky’s “young team.”

Two straight losses not only sent Kentucky Coach John Calipari back to the drawing board, he’s been scribbling graffiti all over it.

At a news conference Friday, Calipari said he’d even begun exercising. He had an ulterior motive for trying to become fitter.

“I’m trying to make sure you don’t find me under the desk in a week,” he said to reporters.

No, UK basketball did not shrug off the losses at Kansas and Tennessee.

Calipari, who has not lost three straight games since his Memphis team of 2004-05 dropped four in a row in late February/early March, made defense a top priority of post-Tennessee practices.

“The only offense we really worried about was what we were running against our defense,” he said. “Trying to get guys back to how we have to play.”

Better defense and more robust rebounding is the ticket, Calipari said.

More “stops” would have meant a victory over Kansas, he said.

UK, 16-6 overall and 6-3 in the Southeastern Conference, has been beaten too often off the dribble, Calipari said. Rotations have been slow or non-existent. The players haven’t fully grasped a concept of team defense.

Calipari acknowledged the frustration of getting out-rebounded by under-sized Tennessee.

Florida Coach Mike White, whose team plays Kentucky on Saturday in Rupp Arena, expects an opponent thirsting for victory.

“Absolutely,” he said. “No question about it. They’re back at home, and I’m sure they’re geared up. They don’t lose two in a row a whole bunch.”

Marcus Lee, a player whose production has receded of late (six total points in the last three games), said fans can expect a revived Kentucky.

“I think we’re ready to be the aggressors, now,” he said.

Losses can be demoralizing, Lee said. But the UK players’ reaction to losses at Kansas and Tennessee had been the “total opposite.”

Lee saw a more determined Kentucky team. But he balked at the suggestion of the players sharing the crisis mentality among fans who communicate via the Internet.

“It’s a crisis for them because they don’t know what’s going on in our gym,” he said. “We’re learning. We’re a young team, and it’s a learning process. So, right now, we’re just trying to figure it out.”

Calipari, who noticed the silent flight back from Knoxville on Tuesday night, hit on now-familiar themes.

The Cats must make high-percentage plays down the stretch of close games. He mentioned Isaiah Briscoe, and the need to not look to draw fouls at the end of games.

The Cats must develop better habits on offense and defense.

Calipari said he got encouragement from a conversation with point guard Tyler Ulis earlier Friday. Ulis assured him the team would get back on a winning track.

“‘I’m good,’” Ulis told him, Calipari said. “‘As long as I’m good, I’ll get these guys right.’”

Calipari suggested that Lee can be a stabilizing presence as an energetic and productive front-court player. It’s well documented that Kentucky is too often exclusively dependent on its three star guards.

“If he does his thing, it kind of puts everything in a spot where we’re good with,” Calipari said. “You’re not scrambling. Who’s next? How do we do this?”

Calipari, who made a pointed comment about how 25 game minutes at Tennessee caused fans to think “the world is coming to an end,” counseled calm.

“I’m not looking at this other than I’m blessed to be here and have this opportunity,” he said. “So I’m not woe-is-me. There ain’t no way.”

As if mimicking a modern-day Johnny Mercer, Lee accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative.

Lee called attention to a sunny side of the loss at Tennessee.

“It takes a special type of team to be up 21 (points) and end up losing the game,” he said. “We’re definitely special. Without a doubt. I think it took something like that for us to realize (the Cats have to) play great every second. And we can’t take any moments off. . . .

“We still have a month and a half (till the postseason). We’re still on track to do great things.”

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton


Florida at No. 20 Kentucky

When: 4 p.m.

TV: CBS-27

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Florida 15-7 (6-3 SEC), Kentucky 16-6 (6-3)

Series: Kentucky leads 97-37

Last meeting: Kentucky won 64-49 on March 13, 2015, at the SEC Tournament in Nashville.

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