Kentucky coach John Calipari is not worried about the national rankings and knows Ohio State’s impressive win over Duke Tuesday could easily vault the Buckeyes to No. 1 in the polls next week no matter what his Wildcats, who are currently No. 1, do against St. John’s tonight and North Carolina Saturday.
“We’ve got a very young team. We start three freshmen and two sophomores,” said Calipari Wednesday. “How we respond … we haven’t been real good offensively. We’ve got to get better. I like my team. I wouldn’t want to have anybody else’s team. But I would tell you we have a long way to go — individual players and as a team.”
Kentucky has faced only one high profile team — Kansas — while getting off to a 6-0 start. While St. John’s is not a national powerhouse this year, the Red Storm do play in the Big East.
North Carolina was considered the preseason favorite not only to win the Atlantic Coast Conference title, but also perhaps the national championship because of its returning players and recruiting class.
“All these kind of games and the mistakes we make are learning opportunities — for our team and our coaching staff. That’s what it becomes. You want to play these kind of games,” Calipari said. “You can’t afford, when you’re Kentucky and you’re in the SEC — people forget we were 10-6 last year in the SEC — you can’t play all these kind of games and put your program at risk. But you need to play these kind of games to figure out where are we before January.
“But they’re all learning opportunities. And I even told the guys, ‘Go do what you think is right. You know how I want you to play. There are things that we haven’t talked about. Choose what you think you should do in those situations.’ It’s a learning experience. I don’t want anybody to play tentative.”
He said former UK coach Joe Hall watched practice Monday when the Cats were working on how to play against a trapping defense. He said Hall laughed about the way Calipari’s young team didn’t always know what to do.
“There’s just things they don’t know, and you can’t cover it all until you see it in a game. There’s things that’ll hit every game,” Calipari said.
Calipari warned Wednesday that playing St. John’s would not be a walk-over for his team.
“This is a scary game. I just watched another tape today. They were up eight with six minutes to go on Arizona. And then all of the sudden it was a turnover, a breakdown defensively, another turnover and now it’s anybody’s ballgame. But they were up eight with six minutes to go.
Arizona’s a ranked team,” Calipari said. “They’re young, but they’re athletic and they’re active. You’re going to see a team that’s trying to steal every ball, dives on the floor, takes charges. These guys ball.
“It’s going to be a good challenge for us, and it’s something that we have to say, ‘Are you going to let them beat you to every 50/50 ball? Are you going to let them beat you on the floor when there’s a (loose) ball? Are you going to let them outrun you down the court?’ It’s something that we have to see. It’s something that we’ll be challenged by.”
That is why Calipari said he’s been harder on this team in recent practices after their climb in the polls to No. 1 Monday.
“I’ve been tough on them. Not in a mean way but just raising the bar to get them to forget all that other stuff and worry about getting better,” the Kentucky coach said.
“Forget rankings. All that becomes is a bigger target on your back. It’s a nice badge of honor but it’s a target for someone else. We must get better. We’re not really good offensively right not. We’re not in sync. We have to keep figuring out how we have to play offensively.”
Out of sync: Freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist not only has become a solid contributor, but he’s also not been shy with his answers to the media. He was asked Wednesday how the Cats were playing compared to what he expected.
“On a scale from one to 10, I’d say about a four. I’m not disappointed at all; we are just a young group that is still learning. I expect us to get a lot better. We can be a 10. I expect everyone to get better,” Kidd-Gilchrist said.
Keeping focused: Freshman Anthony Davis says there’s no way UK ?will look past St. John’s to Saturday’s game with North Carolina.
“We’re not even talking about Saturday’s game right now. We’re worrying about St. John’s since that’s tomorrow. They’re a great team and we have to get prepared for them,” Davis said. “They’re really scrappy and they like to come out and play hard and fast. Basically, we’re playing just another college basketball team since they play hard as well. It’s going to be another game where we really have to come out and play.”
“Everybody is playing with a chip on their shoulder. Everybody is coming out to beat us. Even if we weren’t number one, people would still want to come out and beat us.”
Freshman point guard Marquis Teague says the next two games along with one Dec. 10 at Indiana will be a good test for the Cats.
“We are playing some of the best teams in the country, so we have to come out and be ready and show people what we are made of,” Teague said. “It is going to be a big test for us to come out and prove we are one of the best teams.
“I just want to come out and be a leader on the floor, run the show pretty much, be the coach on the floor and make sure my team is doing everything they are supposed to be doing and everyone is playing hard to get the win.”
Starting: Calipari wouldn’t say whether senior Darius Miller would be back in the starting lineup against St. John’s or continue to come off the bench as he has in the last five games.
“We’ll just see how it goes. The way he’s playing, he’s our best player,” Calipari said.
Calipari said sophomore Doron Lamb, Kidd-Gilchrist or even Teague could provide a spark off the bench just like Miller has if he changed the starting lineup.
“I would say the other two (Terrence Jones and Davis) are pretty squared away in there (in the starting lineup), but it may be one of those. The reality is … we have six starters. That’s what we have. So some of it may be game to game. Maybe I decide I want Michael guarding somebody different and we go to a bigger lineup. We could do that,” Calipari said.