Watch out, Kentucky basketball Wildcats.
John Calipari has you right where he wants you.
Yeah, we know, you think you really did something Saturday in Rupp Arena, rallying from a halftime deficit to defeat UNC Greensboro 78-61. You held the Spartans to 27.8 percent shooting the second half. You outscored the visitors 22-4 over the final 10 minutes. You won your seventh straight game.
And unlike many of your previous six victims, Greensboro is a good basketball team. Coach Wes Miller’s crew lost to Gonzaga by just four points in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. Several key Spartans returned from that team, including a native Spaniard named Francis Alonso who scored 11 points in the game’s first 3:49.
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“It was either the kid scores 60 or we put Ashton on him,” said Calipari afterward, admitting the Cats started the game with the wrong guy guarding UNCG’s best guy.
Ashton would be UK freshman guard Ashton Hagans. Or perhaps from Saturday forward we should refer to him as Ashton “Shutdown” Hagans. With Hagans tracking his every move, Alonso scored all of 11 points the remainder of the game, including just three points in the second half and a big fat zero points in the final 16:09.
“There defense was tremendous in the second half,” Miller said. “We had a hard time coming by quality shots.”
Only here’s the thing: Kentucky now has coming what Calipari has been waiting for all along — some quality time with his Cats. Some quality practice time.
“We’re giving them two-and-a-half days off, starting with the rest of today,” said Calipari, using a familiar joke in his repertoire. “They get (Sunday) off and we’ll just do individual stuff on Monday. Then we get right back at it.”
Thanks to a quirk in the UK schedule, it’s just Saturday games the remainder of the calendar year. On Saturday, Dec. 8, the Cats face Seton Hall in New York’s Madison Square Garden. On Saturday, Dec. 15, they return home to play Utah. On Saturday, Dec. 22, they travel to Chicago to play North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic. Then Saturday, Dec 29, they play at Louisville.
There are no weekday games in between. None. Zero. Nada. No quick turnarounds. No light practice today because there’s a game tomorrow. No ESPN or SEC Network 9 p.m. late-night starts with early classes the next morning, filmwork and practice in the afternoon and good luck squeezing in a good night’s sleep.
“Now I have time,” Calipari said.
Time for what exactly? Well, for all those things the coach says he just has not had time to work on with his team. Let Cal count the ways.
“If we’re going to press, what does it look like?” he said. “Who are the players that can play against that zone? Some offensive things, how do we maybe space the court wider?”
These first eight games, we’ve learned some things. These Cats are beasts on the boards; No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebound percentage, in fact. Reid Travis, he of the 22 points and 12 rebounds Saturday, is a smart senior around the hoop. Tyler Herro can make shots. Cal loved the way Keldon Johnson fought Saturday. PJ Washington can play better. And EJ Montgomery needs better game conditioning.
There are so many things we don’t know, however. That Calipari doesn’t know. So many plays he hasn’t installed; so many defensive fundamentals he hasn’t taught; so many of the finer points of ball handling and passing he has yet to get across.
“We still turn it over too much,” he said Saturday.
There’s a fix for that, of course. Over the remainder of December, he can work on that fix. Be prepared. A Camp Cal preview is coming a little early.
“I’ve got to get less into result and more into the process,” Calipari said Saturday. “And I’ve got to stay the course.”
Hey, Kentucky basketball Wildcats, time to get up close and personal with the process. The process of practice.