John Clay

All John Calipari wants for his players is a little respect

Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari yells down court during the Citi Hoops Classic against the Monmouth Hawks at Madison Square Garden in New York, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. Kentucky won the game 93-76.
Kentucky head basketball coach John Calipari yells down court during the Citi Hoops Classic against the Monmouth Hawks at Madison Square Garden in New York, Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. Kentucky won the game 93-76. aslitz@herald-leader.com

Come on now, when it comes to college basketball, Kentucky is forever overlooked. Nobody pays attention to the Cats. Always operating under the radar, they bide their time hoping someone gives them their props.

“I’m a little disappointed that the kids aren’t getting the respect I think they deserve as players,” UK Coach John Calipari said Saturday after his team buried Monmouth 93-76 in Madison Square Garden to improve to 8-1. “I’ve done this for 30-something years. I know one player from another.

“I don’t know if it’s people’s opinion or their hope that this guy is not that good.”

There we go. That’s the Cal we know, God love him, twisting the national take from level-headed talent evaluation to one skewed by bias. Based on jealousy, everyone dislikes Kentucky, is Cal’s us-against-the-world battle cry. Or dislikes me. Or both.

Of course, Calipari has the answer to that: “We’re getting better.”

He’s right. Say what you will about the Cats’ cupcake-line schedule — and you’d be right — faithful followers of this 2017-18 team have seen improvement from that first half of the first game, when UK trailed Utah Valley, to the first half Saturday when the Cats mashed Monmouth 54-31.

“Individual guys have got to improve before your team gets better,” Calipari said Saturday.

PJ Washington, 15 pounds lighter than 17 days ago, is better. The freshman forward scored 16 points in the first half Saturday and a career-high 20 for the game. Perhaps his best stat came at the foul line, where the Texan was a perfect 9-for-9 after spending more time in the gym.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who contributed 15 points and nine assists Saturday, is better. True, the freshman still turns the ball over too much, but, man, his length and instincts on defense are one reason Calipari is learning to love the zone. (Or at least not hate it.)

Nick Richards, his start so slow Calipari enlisted old friend Dr. Bob Rotella for a head check, is better. The freshman center had 10 points and eight boards in just 18 minutes Saturday. He made five of seven shots. His up-side keeps trending up.

Hamidou Diallo, he of the outrageous athleticism, is better. The New Yorker’s career-high 23 points on Saturday had more to do with Diallo “being the willing passer, doing less,” Calipari said. “(He) looks way better doing less.”

Overall, the Cats are better, a point proven when Kevin Knox, the team’s leading scorer, went a dismal 1-for-9, including one of five from three-point range at The Garden on Saturday. Were that not garish enough, Knox turned it over seven times.

The freshman forward’s performance was, in the words of Calipari, “good for the soul.” Translation: It never hurts to get knocked off your feet every once in awhile. Let’s see how Knox gets back up. Let’s see what he’s learned.

Another positive: Kentucky hasn’t been knocked off its feet the way so many of its national peers have thus far. Arizona lost to North Carolina State. Florida lost at home to Loyola of Chicago. Notre Dame lost to Ball State. Kansas lost to Washington. On Saturday, in its ACC opener, No. 1 Duke took a spill at Boston College.

Now that the compulsories are finished, have the Cats improved enough to handle the step up in competition? That’s the real question. Virginia Tech, UCLA, Louisville and Georgia close out the Cats’ calendar year. As Calipari mentioned last week, all four are fully capable of handing Kentucky an L.

The Cats still commit too many turnovers — one in nearly every four possessions on Saturday. They can’t quite sustain effective effort for 40 minutes. Monmouth outscored UK 26-15 over the game’s final seven minutes.

Still, as you might expect, even if not enough people are paying attention, Cal’s kids are in a much better spot now than they were back on Nov. 10.

“We’re just getting started,” said the coach.

So is the meat of the schedule. That’s where these Cats can earn some real respect.

Next game

Virginia Tech at Kentucky

2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)

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