It had been a quick practice for the Kentucky basketball team at Belmont University on Friday, just 30 minutes or so in preparation for what it hopes will be the grind of three games in three days downtown at the SEC Tournament.
When it was done, the head coach, John Calipari, stood with his back to a brown wall inside the lobby of the Curb Event Center before the TV cameras and tape recorders and laid out the postseason question at hand.
“When I look at them, every one of them has gotten better, every one of them has improved,” Calipari said. “Now, are we ready to just swarm and scramble and play with great energy, pass the ball and fly up and down the court?”
The word “win” was not mentioned. Sure, that’s always the goal. Come Sunday, the Cats want to climb the ladder and snip the nets at Bridgestone Arena, but that’s not what this weekend is ultimately all about.
Ask that 2012 Kentucky team, the one that lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament finals — you have forgotten about that — then won the NCAA Tournament.
Last Saturday, when UK rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to finish the regular season with a 71-63 win at Texas A&M, Calipari said what he normally says before the conference tournament — of which he is not a particular fan — that it’s more about NCAA Tournament seeding and, in his words, “getting his team right.”
So Friday, Calipari was asked what he needed to see from his team in Music City to show the coach his team is where it needs to be for the Big Dance the following week.
“You know, that you see a cohesive team that’s patient yet attacking, that’s not on their heels waiting, (that’s) trying to make things happen,” he said. “That’s who we should be. The only way you get that is your team plays with high energy.”
In other words, play all out.
In other words, play like there’s no tomorrow.
That’s what the postseason is all about. It’s single elimination. That’s not always easy for young players to understand. This isn’t, as Cal likes to say, AAU where you play a game, eat a hamburger and go play two more. You lose you go home. That goes for here in Nashville as well as next week.
Next week is more important, however. Lose then and you go home for good, or at least you go home for the season. No more games until next year. For some players, lose and there are no more college games at all.
That doesn’t mean this weekend lacks all importance. As Calipari has said, there is NCAA seeding to consider. Most barons of bracketology place Kentucky as either a No. 2 or No. 3 seed come Selection Sunday. Even with a conference tournament title under UK’s belt, it’s hard to see it rising above a No. 2. Even with a Friday first-game loss to Georgia, it’s hard to see UK falling below a No. 3.
It’s more about what Calipari sees, anyway. From the sound of it Friday, besides efficient offense and disciplined defense, he just wants to see energy. He wants to see aggressiveness.
“The greatest thing about Dom (Hawkins), we all know he will play with high energy. So if you look out there and someone’s not (playing with high energy), you’re out,” Calipari said. “The same thing, you’ve got Wenyen (Gabriel), you got Derek (Willis). If that doesn’t work, maybe you go Mychal (Mulder). Mychal’s been playing well. So we’ve got enough guys.”
But do they have the right stuff to get it right?
“At this time of year, there should be nothing else you’re thinking about other than, ‘Man, I’m going to play hard. I’m going to play with unbelievable energy,’” said the coach. “You’re not holding anything back right now.”
John Calipari in the SEC Tournament at Kentucky
Mississippi State (final)
Texas A&M (final)