The game was over. Kentucky had eased past Hofstra 96-73 at the Barclays Center. As the two coaches shook hands, Hofstra’s Joe Mihalich told John Calipari he wouldn’t be surprised to see Kentucky win it all come March.
“We’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to work out,” replied the Kentucky coach.
If there were nits to pick Sunday, Calipari was in the mood to pick them. Yeah, sure, his sixth-ranked Cats had improved to 9-1 with a 23-point win. They shot 51.4 percent from the floor. Over the final four minutes of the first half and the opening four minutes of the second, they outscored Hofstra 26-3 to take control.
Big deal. The easy path is over. Sharp curves up ahead. There’s North Carolina in Las Vegas on Saturday. There’s Louisville at the Yum Center four days later. Then there’s the SEC. Take a look at the schedule. Calipari knows. He knows something else.
“We’re not playing the way we need to play,” he said.
He also said this: “I’m worried”
Coach-speak, you say. Might this be the set-up for Camp Cal, that post-finals/Christmas break stretch when the 20-hour rule need not apply and the coach can all but lock his players into the Craft Center and force them do little else besides practice basketball, eat, sleep and practice more basketball?
“I’ll give them a little time for video (games) and the phone,” Cal said Sunday. “You don’t do that, they’re climbing the walls.”
And yet, before you think this is a case of Calipari playing mind games, know that the coach has a point. Actually, he has several points.
For starters, Kentucky was outrebounded 45-41 Sunday. Sure, in Rokas Gustys, Hofstra boasted the nation’s leading rebounder at 13.5 per game. Gustys grabbed eight boards Sunday and the Pride still outworked UK on the glass.
The Cats also committed 27 fouls. Hofstra shot 37 free throws. A pair of quick Pride guards, especially senior Deron Powers, had success slipping past Kentucky defenders to the basket to score or be fouled. Powers, a grad transfer who was on the Hampton team that played Kentucky in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, made nine of 11 free throws and scored 18 points.
Afterward, when Powers was asked to compare that Kentucky team with this Kentucky team, he sided with the 2015 version, the one that won 38 straight before losing in the Final Four. It had more depth, he said. (“More depth than these guys?” asked Mihalich.) And that 2015 team was taller, said Powers.
These Cats might be better offensively. When De’Aaron Fox is flying and Isaiah Briscoe is getting to the rim and Malik Monk is knocking down threes and Bam Adebayo is hitting those baby hooks around the basket, the Cats are going to score points.
“UCLA outscored us,” said Calipari, referring to the Bruins’ 97-92 win over the Cats at Rupp last week, as if you had forgotten that.
Plus, there will be a night, maybe two, when the offense isn’t there. The shots won’t fall. The fast break is slowed. Things just won’t go Kentucky’s way on that end of the floor.
“The guys in here that know me, I like to have a team shoot 32 percent and still win the game,” he said. “We won by six and couldn’t make a shot. Made one three. Made some free throws. Couldn’t make a basket and we still won. That’s when you know you have a good team.”
You can bet that’s part of what worries the head coach. He knows he has a good team that is playing well enough to win easily over inferior opponents. Is it playing well enough, however, to beat the teams it really has to beat to make good on the Hofstra coach’s prediction?
You’d have to think Calipari believes no.
“He’s not a Hall of Fame coach for nothing,” Mihalich said. “He’ll get it all worked out.”
Kentucky vs. North Carolina
5:45 p.m. Saturday in Las Vegas (CBS-27)
Kentucky men’s basketball 2016-17
Stephen F Austin
vs Michigan State
vs North Carolina