John Calipari knew he was going into a hornets nest Thursday night at Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish have taken down many ranked opponents on their home floor over the years, and the Wildcats became just the latest in a 64-50 setback that wasn’t as close as the final score may indicate.
What the Kentucky coach did not anticipate, however, was how little sting his own team would pack in their sixth game of the year.
“We’re a November basketball team. That’s all I can tell you,” Calipari said Friday as his eighth-ranked Wildcats (4-2) prepare for a quick turnaround and a 12:30 ET tipoff against Baylor (4-2) on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
“I watched the tape. We stopped playing, didn’t compete; didn’t come up with 50-50 balls; didn’t play for one another. We kind of separated a little bit, but that’s the first road game and, you know… I knew we’d struggle, but I thought we’d compete. That’s the surprising thing. We just didn’t battle them. It was obvious (Notre Dame) wanted the game more than we wanted the game.”
Kentucky scored the fewest points during Calipari’s four years in Lexington, allowed Notre Dame to shoot 48 percent from the field and were outrebounded 33-27 by the Fighting Irish.
Two of the Wildcats’ top players, freshman guard Archie Goodwin and freshman forward Alex Poythress, scored three points apiece. They came into the game averaging a combined 37.4.
“What they did was kind of step back and let everything be dictated by Notre Dame, which is why the game turned out the way it did,” Calipari said.
Were the Cats shell-shocked by their first true road game of the season?
“Maybe. I don’t know,” Calipari said. “You came to Kentucky. You came here. I mean, you’re going to get shell-shocked? Well then you’re going to get shell-shocked every road game you play then.
“I almost wanted them to stay out on the court and see them storm to the court to say, ‘Do you understand every road game this is what will happen because you’re Kentucky? You shouldn’t have come here if you didn’t know that.’”
The UK boss would prefer some extra time to work with his squad after such a disappointing effort, but thinks it might benefit the Cats to get back on the court as soon as possible. He said he’s got to find ways to get freshman big men Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein on the court together more often, which should help the rebounding woes, and is considering moving Goodwin away from the point and back to his natural shooting guard spot so the Cats can get more transition scoring opportunities. That would mean more of Ryan Harrow or Jarrod Polson at the point.
“This is as much me figuring it out as it is them,” Calipari said. “The one thing that they have to bring is a competitive spirit and a will to win. I’ll help them with all the other stuff.
“I keep hearing, ‘Cal’s teams always get better as the year goes on and they’ll be at their best.’ Well, that’s if you really work. If you fall in love with practice and improvement, if you’re in love with that, we’re going to get better. I like my team. But if we don’t, I don’t have a magic wand. It’s not what I do. This will be an interesting game. This will be a hard game for us… Will we be tentative because we got beat? This is a tough one. It’s what we need.”
Calipari praised Baylor’s senior point guard, Pierre Jackson, who enters the game averaging 20.3 points and 6.7 assists per game. He said the Cats also have to be aggressive against the Bears’ junior shooting guard, Brady Heslip (11.6 ppg, 38% 3pfg). “He can really shoot. If he gets it off, it’s in.”
Kentucky allowed Notre Dame to hit eight of its 15 attempts from 3-point range Thursday night.
Baylor also has solid frontcourt play in the combination of freshman Isaiah Austin (14.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Cory Jefferson (14.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg).
“They’re a little different (from last year’s team UK faced in the Elite Eight) but they’re good. They’re a good team,” Calipari said.