John Clay

Why Kentucky’s John Calipari has his work cut out for him

Photo slideshow: Tennessee hands UK another loss in Knoxville

No. 23 Tennessee rallied in the second half to beat No. 17 Kentucky 76-65 on Jan. 6, 2018, in Knoxville.
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No. 23 Tennessee rallied in the second half to beat No. 17 Kentucky 76-65 on Jan. 6, 2018, in Knoxville.

It might take weeks and tweaks, guile and gumption, and the experience and expertise that produced John Calipari’s Hall of Fame résumé, because with this Kentucky basketball team, the coach has his work cut out for him.

“They’re different than the guys he’s had in the past; they are, they’re different,” said Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes after his Vols delivered a 76-65 dissection of his good friend’s team in Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday night.

Isn’t “different” just a nice way of saying they are not quite as good?

“They’re younger,” Barnes said when asked for detail. “When you look at them they remind me of my team when they’re not as big, as strong as some of his players he’s had in the past.”

That doesn’t mean Kentucky can’t go places.

“I’m sure that by the end of the year, John will have them where they need to be,” Barnes said. “He always does.”

Getting there, however, might add some gray hairs to the 58-year-old coach who, surprisingly enough, seemed almost upbeat after the defeat. Got manhandled, said Cal. Embarrassing, said Cal. Things like this are going to happen, said Cal. Hopefully it’s a lesson learned, said Cal.

A rather painful lesson, to be sure. Up 37-29 at halftime, the Cats were drubbed 47-28 over the final 20 minutes, the 19-point margin the most UK has been outscored in a second half during Calipari’s eight-plus years as coach.

There was no mystery to the Cats’ collapse, either. When UK’s best player on the night, freshman forward PJ Washington, exited the game for good with cramps at the 12:33 mark, Kentucky had no one else playing well enough to pick up the slack. Meanwhile, in desperate need of a Southeastern Conference win, Tennessee took full and total advantage.

But then that’s been the problem with this impossibly young Kentucky team. Though 12-3 overall and 2-1 in the SEC, there’s never been a point in the season when it’s felt like all of the players were playing well at the same time. The 90-61 trouncing of Louisville came the closest, but that hasn’t been the norm.

“PJ Washington, early in the game, he was a man in there,” Barnes said Saturday of the freshman who finished with 13 points in 23 minutes.

Meanwhile, after scoring 63 points in his last three games, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was held to three points Saturday. After a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds at LSU, Kevin Knox went 1-for-9 from the floor, including misses on all five three-point attempts, at Tennessee. Wenyen Gabriel made three three-pointers in the first half only to foul out after picking up four fouls in four minutes in the second half.

They’re not robots. Oops, sorry, Cal-speak, as was his postgame message about a lack of toughness. But before you start crabbing about the constant one-and-done churn and lamenting this year’s struggles, remember Calipari has taken UK to four Final Fours in eight seasons. He has won a national title. He’s in the Hall of Fame. The sky isn’t falling. Some years are easier than others.

And there will be more, to use another Cal term, “dings” this year. Better SEC basketball has meant crazier SEC basketball. Look at Auburn, engulfed by preseason FBI turmoil, with two of its top players suspended pending the completion of the investigation. The Tigers are 14-1 overall and 2-0 in the league. Look at Texas A&M, once as high as No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, now 0-3 in the SEC and coming to Rupp Arena on Tuesday night.

If you’re a Kentucky fan brave enough to look ahead down that lonesome road you see two games with A&M, two games with Florida, plus trips to West Virginia, Missouri, Auburn and Arkansas.

“This thing is day-to-day,” said Calipari.

Every day is likely to be different — a nice way of saying “hard” — but then the faithful and its coach probably didn’t need Rick Barnes to tell them that.

Tuesday

No. 11 Texas A&M at No. 17 Kentucky

7 p.m. (ESPN)

Kentucky in Ken Pomeroy computer ratings

Season

Offense

Defense

Overall

2009-10

22

6

4

2010-11

8

16

7

2011-12

2

7

1

2012-13

38

88

55

2013-14

14

32

13

2014-15

6

1

1

2015-16

5

39

6

2016-17

12

7

4

2017-18

40

17

22

Source: kenpom.com

SEC men’s basketball standings

Team

W

L

W

L

Florida

3

0

11

4

Auburn

2

0

14

1

Kentucky

2

1

12

3

Ole Miss

2

1

9

6

Miss State

1

1

13

2

Missouri

1

1

11

4

Georgia

1

1

10

3

Alabama

1

1

9

5

LSU

1

1

10

4

Arkansas

1

2

11

4

Vanderbilt

1

2

6

9

Tennessee

1

2

10

4

South Carolina

1

2

10

5

Texas A&M

0

3

11

4

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