LEXINGTON, Ky. – Samford coach Ben Seltzer says he was only trying to motivate his team when he was overheard telling the Bulldogs “this is the worst Kentucky team I’ve ever seen” during the first half of Tuesday’s game at Rupp Arena.
When the final horn sounded on the Wildcats’ 88-56 victory, UK coach John Calipari did not exactly go out of his way to dispel that notion.
“Oh, I haven't seen all the Kentucky teams, but I can't imagine there weren't a few that were worse than us,” Calipari joked during one of the rare moments of levity in his postgame press conference.
Suddenly unranked Kentucky (5-3) avoided its first three-game losing streak in four seasons under Calipari, but did not leave him with a good taste in his mouth after a ragged second half which saw the Wildcats edge the outmatched Southern Conference opponent by the narrowest of margins, 43-42. They dominated the first half 45-14.
Many of the old, familiar bad habits that have dogged the defending national champions early in the season –- failure to secure rebounds and loose balls, lack of communication and rotation on the defensive end of the floor –- showed up once again in the second half, prompting Calipari to warn his players that a tougher practice regimen is coming.
“Camp Cal,” he called it with a devilish grin.
“We're going to condition (at 7) in the morning for the next three weeks and then practice because I can't think of any other reason why you wouldn't come out in the second half and play,” Calipari said. “I just don't understand that, especially what we've been going through.
What they've been going through is a sluggish early season that few expected when the Wildcats were ranked No. 3 in both the AP and coaches’ preseason polls. But losses to Duke, unranked Notre Dame on the road, and unranked Baylor at home -- a rare defeat at Rupp Arena -- have made it clear this year's team of fab freshmen isn't at the level of last year's national title team. At least not yet.
“(They) need to learn how to play a full game,” Calipari said. “They had that opportunity today, so we have to chalk it up to they're not in shape. (But) they will be. We're going to be the most in-shape team inside the next three weeks. We're going to condition in the morning, we're going to practice in the afternoon.”
|John Calipari is ready to put his Wildcats through a tougher conditioning regimen.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress, who had 16 points and eight rebounds against Samford but also turned the ball over five times, said the Cats “got a little complacent in the second half.”
“We should have won this game by a lot more,” he added, downplaying the conditioning aspect. “Coach just wants the best out of us.”
Freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, who registered the Wildcats’ first double-double of the season with 12 points and 12 rebounds off the bench against Samford, said he wasn’t sure what to make of Calipari’s comments.
“He’s the coach. If he doesn’t think we are in shape, I guess we aren’t in shape,” Cauley-Stein said. The highly-regarded 7-footer from Kansas thinks it has more to do with motivation and breaking the team of trying to be “too cool” on the court.
“It’s all mental. He is trying to get us more mentally tough. There is no way we can’t be in shape. Going through the offseason and even how practices are now, there is no way we are not in shape. It’s all mental.”
Cauley-Stein was one of several UK players to delete their Twitter accounts earlier in the week coming off the 64-55 loss to Baylor that snapped Kentucky’s 55-game home winning streak, the longest in the nation to that point. He cited negativity from some Wildcat fans as the reason for his decision.
When informed of the “worst Kentucky team I’ve ever seen” comment from the Samford head coach, Cauley-Stein shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what we’ve been hearing (from UK fans) the last three weeks.”
So in what may have been the most widely-panned 32-point victory in its illustrious history, Kentucky did little to answer the burning questions that led to the Wildcats dropping out of the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since Calipari arrived in Lexington four years ago. The Cats’ drop from No. 8 to unranked marked the biggest free-fall in the history of the poll since it expanded to 25 teams in 1990.
That UK shot 56 percent from the field, dished out 23 assists on 34 field goals and placed six players in double figures (Archie Goodwin 18, Poythress 16, Nerlens Noel 13, Cauley-Stein 12, Julius Mays 10 and Kyle Wiltjer 10) seemed to matter little to anyone at the end of the night. Neither did a 41-25 rebounding advantage, 11 steals and 10 blocked shots.
It all looked good on paper, but this was Samford. Not Duke or even Notre Dame or Baylor. Kentucky shot a dismal 29.6 percent in the loss to the Bears and barely cracked 40 percent against the Irish.
Not good enough. Not at this program. Not with this coach.
“Obviously they don't get it yet,” Calipari said, “but they will. We’ll get (strength coach) Ray Oliver, 20 to 30 minutes of straight running. Not heart rates at 120. Your heart rate is going to be at 175, 180.
“Strap ‘em on, boys.”
For his part, Cauley-Stein says the extra conditioning won’t be an issue. “We’re basketball players. We’re used to running. Getting up at 7 (a.m.) will be the worst part.
“If you dread it, it’s going to be worse, so you just have to approach it as it’s helping you. If you approach it like it’s going to make us better, and in three weeks it’s going to be crazy how good we are.”
Kentucky gets another opportunity to show its coach it can play a complete game on Saturday afternoon against Portland -- a small-conference opponent, like Samford, that the Wildcats should roll over.
“We've got to play basketball, folks,” Calipari said. “Every game we play is someone's Super Bowl. They're celebrating after wins. We've got to be better than we are right now. We've got to be in better shape. We've got to be mentally tougher.”
There could be a silver lining, though.
“It's good we found it out now,” Calipari said. “That's why you play this kind of schedule. You find out exactly where your team is. You make adjustments and go from there.”