Kentucky’s uplifting overtime victory over Missouri is the rearview mirror now, and John Calipari doesn’t want the Wildcats taking a peek as they play host to struggling Mississippi State on Wednesday at Rupp Arena.
“This (MSU) team is capable,” Calipari said of the Bulldogs, who are riding a 12-game losing streak. “If we don’t have the maturity to understand (that) one week ago, where were we? One week ago, we were in coffins. People were trying to nail them shut. Now all of a sudden we’re like, ‘Wow.’ Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don’t have the maturity or mental toughness.”
Getting refocused on the task at hand appears to be the Wildcats’ biggest challenge against Mississippi State (7-19, 2-12 SEC) which is coming off a 41-point home loss to Vanderbilt. The Bulldogs rank last in numerous SEC statistical categories, including: scoring offense (59.3), scoring defense (69.0), field goal percentage (.399), opponent field goal percentage (.439), 3-point shooting (.271) and rebounding margin (-4.2).
“Honestly, we can’t let that play on our mind,” UK junior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We know if a team starts hitting shots, then it’s a totally different ballgame. They probably had their worst game against Vandy, so who knows what they could do. A lot of teams come into Rupp and go off, especially in Rupp, so we know we can’t look past them at all.”
Added Polson: "Coach Cal tells us every day it doesn’t matter who we are playing. We have to focus on getting better.”
Calipari hammered that message home in Monday’s practice. He told the Wildcats they must build upon last week’s wins over Vanderbilt and Missouri, not assume that those victories mean the Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 SEC) is over the hump.
“I told them I’m not backing up,” he said. “I haven’t backed up one bit. I don’t care what we did in that game. What’s the next game? Now are we going to establish how we play, or are we going to be immature and revert back to where we were because that’s how you want to play, because you think it’s easier. Every day’s a lesson.”
The UK boss even learned one of his own after the so-called “quality win” over Missouri that appeared to put the Wildcats squarely back in the NCAA Tournament picture. They were a No. 12 seed in the latest “Bracketology” projections by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
“Here’s a great one: ‘They have to beat Missouri to get in,’” Calipari quipped. “Okay, you beat Missouri, then what do they say? ‘Well, they still have to prove themselves.’ What are you going to do, get upset and listen to all that? I don’t.
“All I know is if our team gets better and does what they’re supposed to, we have the talent to not only play in that tournament, but to advance. We have to prove ourselves every night out. Even more than any team in the country we have to prove ourselves every time out.”
The process of the defending national champions proving themselves has been as tough as any team in the country has faced, Calipari added. UK has played stretches without its starting point guard (Ryan Harrow) its talented 7-footer (Willie Cauley-Stein) and finally its best player, Nerlens Noel, who went down with a season-ending knee injury at Florida.
Said Calipari: “No one has gone through what we went through: losing an entire team; playing all freshmen; having your point guard out; having your big guy out two weeks; losing the best player and the heart of your team and trying to keep going. No one. And we’re still standing, so I’m happy. Now it’s where do we go from here?”