John Clay

John Clay: Missteps add up, but Kentucky has time

Kentucky coach John Calipari instructed his team during a timeout against Alabama on Tuesday.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky coach John Calipari instructed his team during a timeout against Alabama on Tuesday. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

John Calipari loves to talk. That we know. The man can't help it. He expounds beliefs and theories. He makes statements and proclamations. He has been known to lapse into comedic sound-effect mode to get a point across.

In fact, Cal says so much so often that sometimes he forgets what it is he might have said.

Example: After the Jan. 15 win over Tennessee, the Kentucky coach said he could not imagine his team ever being up 20 points on any team.

Four days later, after his Cats had beaten host Auburn by 22, the coach claimed he did not remember making such a statement.

"Did I say that?" he asked in the post-game news conference, only to be told, uh, yes, Coach, you did.

Here's something else that Calipari said, early in the season, that might have been overlooked but bears repeating.

"This team," said the coach, "may not figure it out until February."

My calendar says it's January. My SEC basketball schedule says Kentucky has 13 conference games to play.

And despite the frustration and hand-wringing after UK's second-half collapse and 59-55 loss at Alabama on Tuesday night, my hunch says it's too early to pull the plug on the hope machine when it comes to this year's team.

Doubts are justified. This UK basketball team has been a mismatched lot. The roster is short a player. It's a recipe minus ingredients. As soon as one problem is solved, another arises. One step forward, two steps back.

Last Saturday night at Auburn, the Cats appeared to finally have figured some things out. After a bad offensive first half, they clicked in the second, shooting a high percentage to whip the chilly Tigers with ease. There were grins, chest bumps and hope for a carryover Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa.

That happened for a half. Up nine at the break, Kentucky didn't bother to start the second half until about eight minutes had run off the clock. In the meantime, Alabama owned an 11-1 spurt and all the momentum. Calipari's club ended up scoring just 22 points and losing by four.

Big Blue Nation took to Twitter to point the finger at guard Archie Goodwin, who appeared consumed with driving to the basket no matter the success rate. Others shared blame, however. Ryan Harrow failed to direct any second-half offensive flow. Down the stretch, the Cats failed on needed box-outs. That old bugaboo of missed free throws returned.

"We took a step back," said Calipari afterward.

Then again, the Cats were without Willie Cauley-Stein, the 7-foot freshman who had earned a starting spot before a minor knee procedure left him at home for both games in Alabama. Not to say UK would have won Tuesday with Cauley-Stein, but the presence of another body would have aided Calipari's rotation.

Plus, Alabama isn't awful. After a 6-0 start, Anthony Grant's club hit a prolonged slump. Now in conference play, the Tide appears to have regained its footing. Tuesday's win elevated Alabama to 4-1 in the league.

Besides, Tuesday wasn't the first time a Calipari team took a tumble in Tuscaloosa. Two years ago, Kentucky lost 68-66 to the Crimson Tide in a mid-January game at Coleman Coliseum. It was the game in which Calipari had to apologize afterward for saying something not-so-nice to Terrence Jones.

It was also one of six SEC road losses that team experienced that year before, finally, it figured things out — and reached the Final Four.

I'm not predicting the same scenario here. That 2010-11 edition was superior to this 2012-13 team. That being said, there is reason to think this team could put together a late run.

They have the talent — four potential lottery picks, if you believe those mock drafts. They have the coach who knows how to get it done.

Most importantly, they still have the time.

It's not February. Yet.

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