John Clay

With John Calipari behind the wheel, Kentucky’s basketball bandwagon is rolling

John Calipari: ‘We’re getting better and better’

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team's 71-58 victory over Louisville on Dec. 29, 2018 at the KFC Yum Center. UK improved to 10-2 on the season. The Cats play at Alabama on Jan. 5, 2019.
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Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari talks to the media after his team's 71-58 victory over Louisville on Dec. 29, 2018 at the KFC Yum Center. UK improved to 10-2 on the season. The Cats play at Alabama on Jan. 5, 2019.

Someday a group of hoopologists will sit down, put their learned heads together and somehow solve the great mystery of what happened to this Kentucky basketball team on that notorious November night against the Duke Blue Devils.

Right now, however, nearly two months later, Kentucky is a bandwagon picking up speed with John Calipari in the driver’s seat, foot to the floor.

“All season, our fans have bragged about these kids and talked about how good (we are),” said the almost bubbly UK coach on Saturday after his Cats spanked archrival Louisville 71-58 at the KFC Yum Center. “There’s no room on the bandwagon.”

He was being facetious.

“Was I?” said Cal with a grin.

He had reason to smile. Kentucky’s victory over the Cardinals served as a perfect follow-up to its head-turning triumph over No. 9 North Carolina last Saturday in Chicago. It also echoed the excellence Calipari’s club displayed during its sweep of four August preseason games in the Bahamas.

“I said I wasn’t intoxicated by what happened down there,” Calipari said Saturday, “but I probably was.”

Where that Kentucky team was that dark, dark opening night in Indianapolis when Duke administered a 34-point smackdown on the Cats in the Champions Classic, only the hoop gods know for sure. Even post-Duke, against lesser foes in Rupp Arena, or in an overtime loss to Seton Hall at Madison Square Garden, Kentucky hardly looked the part of a team that sat atop so many preseason rankings.

“We had guys so focused on themselves that they couldn’t play for us,” Calipari said Saturday. “And I missed it.”

Then something clicked inside Chicago’s United Center at the CBS Sports Classic, where Kentucky flipped the statement switch and spoiled Roy Williams’ Christmas with an 80-72 win over the Tar Heels. The question then was whether, in its first true road game of the season, before the crazy Cardinals’ faithful, could Calipari’s forever youngsters keep the momentum going against Chris Mack’s scrappy club?

That would be a yes. The confidence and purpose that rose to the surface in the Windy City carried right into the River City. Kentucky was clearly the better team and played that way. Key stat: From the 17:58 mark of the second half to the final buzzer, UK’s lead was anywhere from nine to 15 points. That’s consistency.

That’s also no knock on Mack, the former Xavier coach charged with cleaning up the Cardinals’ mess. Though his team entered Saturday a surprising 9-3, with a victory over Michigan State on its résumé, Mack doesn’t have the manpower in the first year of a tough rebuild to consistently play with the better teams on U of L’s schedule. Not yet, anyway. (He will.)

And despite what we might have thought after the Duke debacle and during those struggles against Southern Illinois and VMI — never mind the loss to Seton Hall — Kentucky is showing itself to be one of those better teams.

That seems to have dawned on Calipari, who flirted with going full-scale giddy in the post-game press conference. Even as UK sports information director Eric Lindsey was trying to wrap things up, the Kentucky coach kept taking more questions. (Hey, this is fun. Let’s keep going.)

“I don’t pay any attention to the chirping,” Calipari said when asked about the fans. “I don’t watch it, I don’t read it.”

Even if that’s true, he doesn’t have to. He can feel it. As he keeps telling us, Calipari has been doing this a long time. And, in case you haven’t noticed, he’s pretty good at it. He knows better than anyone how his team is really playing and how his fan base feels about it.

“Let me say this, though, we have the greatest fans. Kentucky is what you want,” said the coach. “You never have to sell a ticket, you never have to worry about people being excited about games.”

You can bet those people are excited now. The bandwagon’s rolling with a wide open road ahead.

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