Cats' puzzle pieces coming together?

John Calipari

To hear John Calipari describe it, coaching this year's Kentucky team was akin to putting together a puzzle. An impressive collection of pieces, but a challenge to figure out where all of them fit.

To hear John Calipari describe it, coaching this year's Kentucky team was akin to putting together a puzzle.

An impressive collection of pieces, but a challenge to figure out where all of them fit.

The result to date has been a lot of trial and error, a lot of mismatched pieces en route to a 24-10 record and a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But it's starting to look like the Wildcats have their borders in place and are working toward a clear image.

"The one thing I will tell you (is) that it took me more time to really figure out exactly where these guys fit together," Calipari said. "Not their fault, my fault. And when I tweaked the first thing, it became so evident, I was mad at me. ‘Why didn't I recognize this earlier?' Even the second thing. But I'm not sure they were ready to take all the things earlier in the year. And I think it took time for them to say, you know, to surrender – tell us – because we want to win."

Kentucky attempts to put a few more pieces in place Friday night when the Cats take on 9th-seeded Kansas State (20-12, 10-8 Big 12) in an opening-round matchup in St. Louis.

In a battle of Wildcats, the SEC breed has won two of its last three games – including a 61-60 loss to over No. 1 seed Florida in the SEC championship game – while the Big 12 version has dropped three straight.

Calipari likes where UK's mindset is entering the tourney.

"They are great kids," he said. "… I told them how proud I am. It's been an onslaught of criticism, personal, coaching, team, all that. They believe in each other, they believe in the staff, they believe in what we are trying to do. And it tells a lot about them and their character."

Kentucky entered the season as the No. 1 team in college basketball, thanks in large part to Calipari's fifth-consecutive top-ranked recruiting class. The signing haul featured the No. 1 prospect at four out of five positions – point guard Andrew Harrison, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, power forward Julius Randle and center Dakari Johnson – which led to some expectations that may not have been completely fair to such a youth-dominated roster.

"Some of this stuff was warranted," Calipari said. "But some of it was, you know, you build it up so high it gives you a chance to start whacking at it. But that's part of it. And again, they have handled it great, and I am proud of them. I am enjoying coaching this team."

The UK boss admitted he was probably more demanding of this team than any other he's been around in recent years, even though it featured a starting lineup full of freshmen for most of the season.

"Every team I've ever coached, I am hard on," Calipari said. "I push them, I drive them. This team, I was hard probably longer than other teams, but from body language to habits to other things, you couldn't cheer them on those things. And they were not acceptable. Now, you're seeing a team that's playing more together, that shows less emotion. And, you know, people always say I coach young teams. I've never coached five freshmen, so it's taken longer. But it doesn't matter that it took longer, it's just that they're starting to get it."

As they say, better late than never.

"Probably playing right now as well as we played all year, which I am happy About," Calipari said. "It has taken some time. You know, we thought we had it, and then we lost it, and now we got it back, so feeling pretty good."

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