John Clay

Seems like Kentucky basketball is on a roll, but Calipari begs to differ

John Calipari gives the ins and outs of UK’s win at Mississippi State

Kentucky's John Calipari talked after his team’s 71-67 win at Mississippi State on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss. UK has now won 10 straight games and is 9-1 in the SEC.
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Kentucky's John Calipari talked after his team’s 71-67 win at Mississippi State on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss. UK has now won 10 straight games and is 9-1 in the SEC.

You probably think everything is going swell with your Kentucky basketball team, right Big Blue Nation?

It has rocked its way to a 10-game win streak. It beat back a furious second-half rally to top Mississippi State 71-67 on Saturday. It’s 20-3 overall. It’s 9-1 in the SEC.

What’s not to like?

Plenty, says its mean old head coach.

“I’m holding these guys accountable,” John Calipari declared Saturday. “Every one of them.”

This was the post-game press conference edition of the afternoon’s festivities inside a hepped-up Humphrey Coliseum. Minutes before, Calipari’s Cats had watched their commanding 18-point lead with 16:31 remaining shrink to a single, solitary point with 8:41 left on the clock. And yet amid the roar that was the MSU fan base, the Cats responded, making enough plays down the stretch to top the Bulldogs for the second time this season and extend their win streak to double digits.

“Kentucky is a very, very good team,” a disappointed Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said.

Not good enough, however, in the eyes of its unhappy head coach. Or let’s just say he wasn’t totally happy, anyway. Happy with the SEC road win? Sure. Happy with the way his team is playing? Not so sure. Not when Calipari, who turns 60 on Sunday, knows a thing or two because he’s seen a thing or two.

“It’s my job to make these guys uncomfortable,” said the head coach.

That’s just what Calipari plans to do, starting with his best player, PJ Washington, the sophomore forward who led the way with 23 points Saturday on 9-for-13 shooting from the floor, including a perfect 3-for-3 from behind the three-point line.

The Kentucky men's basketball team defeated Mississippi State 71-67 on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville.

“I think PJ is the best player in the country, but not like he played today,” Calipari said. “He doesn’t go get rebounds. He doesn’t get loose balls. He missed one-footers, missed free throws. If you’re the best, play that way.”

Take EJ Montgomery, the freshman forward from Florida who has upped his game to the point where he can be a real factor come showtime in March. Two games ago, Montgomery grabbed three key rebounds in UK’s win at Florida. Last Tuesday, he posted a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) in the win over South Carolina. Saturday, he passed up an open three from the corner that drew Calipari’s ire.

“Dude, March, you’ve got to shoot that,” Calipari said he told Montgomery, “So you might as well shoot that now, and if you don’t make it and we lose, go in the gym and work on it, work on your confidence.”

And later: “There are spells in the game,” said Calipari, “where our decision-making appears to be, ‘I’m going to do this play’ versus ‘What are we trying to do?’”

Mississippi State basketball coach Ben Howland talks to the media after the Bulldogs’ 71-67 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019. Tyler Herro hit a three-pointer late in the shot clock with 2:58 left to help the Wildcats to the win.

Complacency. You can tell, that’s the thing Calipari is worried about now. He has a young team. He has team that is playing well. But he also knows it can play better — will have to play better — come March. And he knows it needs a push to get there.

“I held them accountable after the game,” Calipari said. “I told them, ‘It’s a great win.’ But believe me, I went right around the room. I said, ‘If you want me to tell you everything’s all good, it isn’t.’ I went right down, each guy. Not mean and screaming and cussing, I wasn’t. You’re here because you want me to keep it real.”

Speaking of keeping it real, let’s be real. In a made-for-TV gimmick, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee announced its initial rankings on Saturday. UK was the top No. 2 seed. Howland called UK “maybe the hottest team in the country.” And when the final horn sounded Saturday, the Cats had something difficult to come by — an SEC road win against a good team.

“We held onto the rope and our hands are bleeding right now,” Calipari said. “Let me tell you, we just held on.”

Yes, Big Blue Nation, these Cats are really good, but the head coach believes they can be so much better.

Kentucky basketball freshman guard Ashton Hagans talks about what head coach John Calipari after Mississippi State cut the UK lead to one point on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2019, in Starkville, Miss. The Wildcats held on for a 71-67 win.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.