John Clay

John Clay: Kentucky basketball turns ‘Camp Cal’ into a Rupp Arena Clinic

After losing 83-61 at Kentucky on Saturday night, Andy Kennedy asked a favor.

“Next year, I want to be invited to Camp Cal,” joked the Ole Miss coach. “Maybe next time he does that he’ll invite the Rebels up so we can get some of what they got this last week.”

After all, after a week of basketball and nothing but basketball, the Cats turned beast mode in the first half, putting on a clinic in their Southeastern Conference opener.

“First half was terrific,” UK Coach John Calipari said.

Yes, it was. Up 14-11, the home team ran off a 16-2 spurt that stretched the lead to 17 points. By halftime, the Cats were up 46-22. Ole Miss had made just six of 26 shots. By Kennedy’s count, the Rebels were 2-of-13 from inside the paint, an area of the floor where the coach wants his team to shoot at least 63 percent.

True, the Cats pulled off the gas a bit in the second half. Less than three minutes into the second period, the Kentucky lead was 29 points at 53-34. The final margin was 22. Stefan Moody, the SEC’s leading scorer, finished right on his average with 23 points, but many of those came long after the game was decided.

Was UK’s first game of 2016 also its best game of 2015-16?

“I believe so,” said point guard Tyler Ulis, who became the first UK player since John Wall in 2009 to score 20 points and dish 10 assists in a game. “We played great the entire game. I thought the first half we played really well defensively. The second half we let up a little bit, but for the most part we played a great defensive game.”

Ulis wasn’t alone. Jamal Murray added 18 points. Marcus Lee had 13 points and eight rebounds. Skal Labissiere showed encouraging signs of fight, scoring nine points and grabbing three rebounds in 14 minutes.

“A first step,” said Calipari of Labissiere’ game, and then the UK coach held his hands out as if to say ‘Woah.’

“I think after a week of preparation and a lot of training in practice, everybody was ready for this game,” Murray said. “We were mentally prepared for what they had offensively.”

For all the talk of how much physical improvement can be achieved in Camp Cal, that blissful period of no-class/all-basketball time between final exams and the start of the spring semester, we shouldn’t overlook the mental aspect, either. It’s not just conditioning, though there’s a lot of that. It’s also learning.

“He’s made it a lot of fun,” Murray said. “He’s made it a fun camp. We do a lot of work, but we’ve made the best out of it.”

That showed Saturday, especially in those first 20 minutes, and possibly no Calipari team has needed a Camp Cal as much as this team. Take Labissiere, the freshman center who hasn’t shown the aggressiveness to meet expectations. Between academics and games, there wasn’t enough practice time to really bear down on the areas in which Labissiere needed to improve. Camp Cal afforded him more of an opportunity to get to work.

“He didn’t play that many minutes, but I’m just happy he took the first step,” Calipari said. “He’s been better in practice; he’s got a bunch of guys cheering for him on this team.”

There were plenty cheering from the stands, too. When Labissiere grabbed a rebound and scored on a dunk with 13:58 left in the first half, Rupp erupted.

“This whole state — I believe the whole country — wants this kid to do well,” Caliapri said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to unpack the bags, live in the moment, enjoy this thing.’”

Camp Cal isn’t something that should be dreaded.

“The thing I like about it, I’ve got them the whole time; you know what I mean?” Calipari said as he walked from the press conference to do his post-game radio show. “It’s a time we can really get better.”

Saturday night, that showed.

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