College Basketball Nation: John Calipari
For the first time ever, a 7-seed and 8-seed will meet in the national championship. It’s the highest combined seed total in a title game.
The Connecticut Huskies are the first 7-seed ever to reach the national championship.
The Kentucky Wildcats are the third 8-seed since the tournament expanded in 1985 to reach the title game (2011 Butler, 1985 Villanova).
Villanova is the only 7-seed or lower to win the national championship.
UConn defeated the Florida Gators to reach its fourth national championship, all since 1999.
UConn was led by DeAndre Daniels, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds. He’s the first player with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in a national semifinal win since Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003.
The loss was Florida’s second against UConn this season. The Gators are 0-2 against UConn and 36-1 against everyone else.
UConn is now 7-1 in Final Four games, the best win percentage for any team with at least three games in the Final Four.
Only one of UConn’s 14 made field goals in the second half came outside the paint.
Florida was outscored 9-0 in transition in the second half. The Gators didn’t have a single transition opportunity in the second half.
Florida had just three assists, the fewest by any team in a Final Four game since assists became official in 1983-84.
Scottie Wilbekin struggled when he was guarded by UConn’s starting backcourt. He was 0-for-5 on field goals when guarded by Ryan Boatright and turned it over on three of four plays when guarded by Shabazz Napier.
The Huskies were at their best with Terrence Samuel on the court. In 18 minutes with Samuel on the court, they outscored Florida by 15 points and had 11 more points than they had in 22 minutes with Samuel on the bench.
Kevin Ollie is the first coach to reach the national championship within his first two seasons as a Division I head coach since Indiana’s Mike Davis in 2002.
Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach its 12th national championship, tied with UCLA for the most all time (not including UCLA’s vacated appearance in 1980).
Kentucky freshman Aaron Harrison made a game-winning 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left, his third game-winning shot in the final minute in this NCAA tournament.
Aaron Harrison is 3-for-3 on game-tying and go-ahead 3-pointers in the final minute in the NCAA tournament after having zero such attempts in the regular season.
The Wildcats had 66 points from their freshmen, the most by a team’s freshmen in a Final Four game (Michigan had 61 in 1992).
John Calipari is now 18-2 in the NCAA tournament as Kentucky head coach.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Police dogs sniffed the backpacks and purses of men and women who entered AT&T Stadium on Friday morning. One of the officers claimed that the black Labradors were deployed to search for bombs and other explosive devices.
But that might not be the full story about the security operation. Perhaps they were really there to protect "the tweak."
For weeks, John Calipari has discussed "the tweak." It’s a mystery, but he swears that the tweak changed Kentucky basketball in 2013-14.
It all started about a month ago, as the Wildcats were prepping for the SEC tournament. That’s when Calipari tweaked -- not to be confused with "twerked" -- something within his program. Even though Kentucky lost to Florida by a point in the conference tourney title game, it seemed renewed in Atlanta.
The Wildcats were jelling and connecting in ways that weren’t evident in the previous weeks and months. They were moving the ball and defending better than they had all season.
What changed? Tell us about the tweak.
"I’m not supposed to talk about it, but it has definitely changed the energy of the team and our chemistry," Julius Randle said. "It just improved the team."
Calipari has promised to divulge the tweak sometime in the future. Once the season ends, he said, he’ll discuss the alteration that morphed Kentucky into the juggernaut that it has become in recent weeks.
"What I told these guys after I saw what it did, I just said, 'You know what? I screwed this up. Make me look good,'" Calipari said. "And they have. The media doesn’t have enough basketball savvy to figure it out, so "
Who can blame Calipari for his approach to this? He’s in the middle of a battle for the national championship, and the goal is to maintain a shroud over any strategic maneuverings that could give his opponent the edge. He’ll face a veteran coach and a talented program in Bo Ryan and Wisconsin during Saturday’s national semifinal.
So it’s better to say less right now.
Reveal the tweak? Nah. This is secret societies stuff. Knights Templar. Freemasons. Skull and Bones.
The tweak might be something simple. Maybe Calipari gave Dakari Johnson a pep talk or granted Randle the freedom to annihilate any mortal who dares to stop him.
It’s obvious, however, that the tweak worked.
Randle has been more aggressive and effective in the NCAA tournament. Aaron Harrison has made nearly 50 percent of his 3-pointers in the Big Dance. Andrew Harrison has been a leader.
Johnson and Marcus Lee have contributed. James Young is confident.
The Wildcats snatched a spot in the Final Four after defeating Kansas State, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan.
No team in the Final Four encountered a more difficult path to Arlington, Texas.
No team in the Final Four made the U-turn that this program has experienced over the past month. On Selection Sunday, the Wildcats were a disappointing 8-seed that entered the season as one of the most hyped squads in recent college basketball history.
Then, they lost to Arkansas and South Carolina in SEC play. As a result, many doubted the program’s postseason potential. Inside the locker room, however, Kentucky still believed.
Look at the Wildcats now. Look at the power of the tweak. Tweakability.
Kentucky’s third trip to the Final Four in four seasons? Don’t credit the kids.
Thank the tweak, whatever it was.
"I mean, Coach said don’t give any details about it, so I can’t really say what it is," Aaron Harrison said.
But what is the tweak? Is it tangible? Can you touch the tweak? Is it edible? Is there video evidence of the tweak? If we close our eyes, click our heels and dream, will the tweak appear?
And where is the tweak? A safe somewhere in Lexington, Ky? A vault in Dallas? Does Jerry Jones have access to the tweak?
"I cannot give any details," said Dominique Hawkins, who wore the look of a young man who knew far more than he disclosed. "I can’t say anything about it."
But maybe it’s not as complicated as Calipari suggests. Maybe it’s simple.
This isn’t the first time a group of young men have unified at the right time. The development of chemistry is a gradual process for most programs. That’s why juniors and seniors discuss their bonds according to years. These Wildcats have been together for only six months, and they’re all freshmen and sophomores.
That makes the tweak even more intriguing.
"I don’t know what the mystery is,” Alex Poythress said, "to be honest."
Young doesn’t mind sharing the secret behind the tweak: The Wildcats have embraced their individual roles and taken a more selfless approach to each game, he said.
"It really wasn’t a tweak," Young said. "It was just us playing hard, I guess, and getting open shots for each other. Just really penetrating."
Added Poythress: "We just came together as a team. We just try to look for open players more, try to play more team ball. Less is more."
Still, that only shows the impact of the tweak.
We still don’t know exactly what it is, and we may never know, because the Wildcats won’t talk about it. There’s a gag order.
And if they beat Wisconsin on Saturday, Calipari will probably mention the tweak again, but don’t expect him to ruin this covert operation.
Leave that to his players.
"I can’t give you details," Johnson said.
It was worth a try.
ST. LOUIS -- It couldn’t really happen.
The billing for Kentucky and Wichita State on Sunday called for a battle of talent versus experience, potential versus accomplishment, the perennial front-runner that underachieved versus the underdog on a magical ride.
They were on a collision course here, primed to meet in a moment that tested wills on both sides: a classic confrontation with all the storylines in place.
It wouldn’t happen, right?
Kentucky outlasted No. 1 seed Wichita State 78-76 in a heavyweight rumble fit for a later round of the NCAA tournament. UK ended the Shockers’ season, perfect at 35-0 until Sunday, by playing like it hadn’t played all year.
With a team of future pros, the Wildcats -- attacked all season, according to coach John Calipari, bludgeoned even -- finally clicked.
And still, the Shockers came up just one shot short as Fred VanVleet’s 3-pointer from the top of the key clanked the rim and bounced away at the Scottrade Center, leaving a crowd of 19,676 to ponder what it had seen.
“You all understand,” Calipari said, “this was an Elite Eight game. The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four.”
It was a round-of-32 gem, one of those unforgettable, back-and-forth tournament games that may mark a coming-of-age moment for Calipari’s young group, which advances to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis this week to face nemesis Louisville.
“We don’t worry about that,” Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “I’m just really trying to enjoy the moment right now.”
What’s that, a Kentucky player refusing to look at the next game, just days away, against Louisville?
“A lot of people were down on us all year,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We’re just trying to make this run and prove everybody wrong.”
The Wildcats’ run, which started as the preseason No. 1, continues. For Wichita State, it ends prematurely. The Shockers got a raw deal, matched against the size and athletic prowess of Kentucky at this stage. At every position, the Wildcats were bigger, starting with twin guards freshmen Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
Wichita State, of course, did not back down. Its sophomore backcourt duo of VanVleet and Ron Baker matched the Harrisons, big moment for big moment.
“You go through some humps in your life, kind of like this one,” Baker said. “It’s tough to see us go out like this. We all wanted more, and at the end of the day, you know, somebody’s got to go home.
“I thought we had a great year, and it’s just unfortunate we won’t be back playing next week.”
In the hallway outside the Wichita State locker room, officials from the Missouri Valley Conference -- the Shockers’ league and host to this event -- wore long faces. One breathed a deep sigh of apparent regret as the doors opened to unveil the Wichita State players, silent and still on the benches inside.
Gregg Marshall had left. The time between coach and players after the game, he said, turned emotional. It was raw. But now, they stared ahead with blank looks. A few of the Shockers toyed with their cell phones. Others tried to answer questions.
But really, they had no answers.
“They made plays,” senior forward Chadrack Lufile said. “They capitalized.”
Wichita State made plays, too. Plenty of them, primarily by Baker and senior Cleanthony Early, who arguably outplayed all of the Kentucky hotshots -- even freshman Julius Randle, a physical force who took over the action for a few minutes early in the second half.
Early, an elite pro prospect himself, scored 31 points on an array of perimeter shots and slicing moves to the rim. His dunk in transition over the 7-foot Cauley-Stein late in the first half left all in attendance to wonder which of these teams, in fact, was stacked with talent.
Baker was just as good at times. When Kentucky, which trailed by six at halftime, went ahead for the first time in the second half at 41-40, Baker rushed down the floor to score and draw a foul. After another Kentucky bucket to tie it at 43, Baker drilled a 3.
Seemingly, the Shockers would not be denied. Until, at the end, the final shot sailed off target.
“It’s hard,” Marshall said, “the finality of it. We won’t be able to coach these seniors anymore. But it’s been such a fun, enjoyable season, magical season. I mean, it’s literally been a magic carpet ride. And to have it end is going to be something that we have to get used to.
“But I still think, in retrospect, we will look back and just be so proud.”
Calipari, nursing a sore hip of late, said he was “whistling and skipping” in the hallway outside the UK locker room, though not because he felt relieved.
“If wins are relief,” he said, “it’s time for me to retire. This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I’d hoped.”
The coach said he failed to define roles adequately among the young Wildcats early in the season. Now, they’re starting to lose themselves within the team. They’re growing as a unit, not lurching forward and backward as individuals. It was evident on the court against Wichita State.
“I just wish we had another month of the season,” Calipari said, “because we’re getting better every day.”
He won’t get a month, but Calipari could get two weeks. It’s a scary thought for the remaining teams in the tournament, because Kentucky, as a No. 8 seed at not even close to its best, takes a backseat to no opponent.
Still, just how close were the Wildcats to a sour finish on Sunday?
Consider this: Andrew Harrison, who runs the point among the 6-foot-6 twins, hurt his right elbow in a collision with Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu on Friday. Calipari said on Saturday that the Wildcats were ready to play without Harrison.
Trainer Chris Simmons spent the night before this game in Harrison’s hotel room, keeping ice on the injured elbow as Harrison slept.
Harrison played well. He made 6-of-9 from the field and scored a team-high 20 points.
Score one for the trainer.
“Without him, obviously you know now, it would have been a different game,” Calipari said. “We couldn’t have won the game.”
That Wichita State had one shot to win, with three seconds on the clock and the ball past half court, speaks to the Shockers’ resolve and their own level of play.
“That’s how good they are,” Calipari said, “and how good we’re playing right now.”
Good enough to make for a classic.
ST. LOUIS -- No. 8 seed Kentucky ended the magical run of No. 1 seed Wichita State with a 78-76 victory in the NCAA tournament round of 32 on Sunday as Fred VanVleet's 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced away.
Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 39 points and Julius Randle added 13 with 10 rebounds for Kentucky, which advances to play rival Louisville, a No. 4 seed, in the Sweet 16. The Shockers, after an unprecedented 35-0 start, are done.
Here are five observations from the thrilling Kentucky victory:
- This game was a joy to watch. It justified the hype. Kentucky came out with something to prove -- that it could play to its potential on the biggest stage in college. Wichita State was just Wichita State, operating with precision on both ends as VanVleet ran the controls of perhaps the nation’s most balanced team. Thing is, the Shockers, despite the questions about schedule quality that followed its 35-0 start, didn’t play with a chip on their shoulders. They played WSU basketball, which is something to behold, even in defeat.
- Credit to Kentucky coach John Calipari, who obviously pushed the right buttons with the Wildcats in the locker room. Andrew Harrison, nursing an elbow injury and questionable to play, and his twin brother, Aaron, ran things early like veterans. Kentucky controlled the glass, and when Wichita State asserted control with a run in the first half, the Wildcats did not act like freshmen. They continued to hit big shots and used their superior skill to complete the comeback after halftime.
- Take nothing away from Wichita State for ending its season in the round of 32. Kentucky was far from a normal No. 8 seed, and this game was played at the level of a Final Four contest. The selection committee offered no favors to the previously unbeaten Shockers with this draw. Couldn’t Wichita State have matched against Pittsburgh or Gonzaga? Any team but Kentucky, which entered the tournament with a ceiling as high as the all the top seeds. It was a great feat to start 35-0, never accomplished before, and there is no shame in bowing out against the Wildcats.
- Randle simply took over. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound freshman was quiet in the first half with just one field goal and four rebounds. But somebody said something to the future first-round NBA draft pick at halftime that awoke the giant. He slammed home a miss on the first UK possession of the second half, then converted another offensive rebound and punctuated Kentucky’s sensational open to the second half with a spinning bucket and three-point play. When Randle is on, the Shockers -- like every team in the college game -- can’t stop him.
- Let’s hope the NCAA never considers moving these second- and third-round games into the big domes that host the next four rounds of tournament play. The environment on Sunday at the Scottrade Center, with more than 19,000 fans packed into it, was phenomenal as Kentucky and Wichita State traded punches. The fans in blue and yellow were engaged from tip to finish. The drive to St. Louis was manageable for fans of both teams, just how it should be as often as possible for these early-round games.
As young fans of college basketball, what did you think of Kentucky?
Baker often watched the Wildcats, he said. His dad was a fan.
Cotton, from Marietta, Ga., recalls admiring Jodie Meeks, who attended high school in suburban Atlanta and then starred at Kentucky.
"As a fan of basketball," Cotton said, "you’re going to watch Kentucky."
Carter, from Akron, Ohio, grew up an Ohio State fan, though he was "very aware" of the Wildcats.
So were any of you recruited by UK, even so much as receive a form letter?
“No. I wasn’t, either.”
And there you have the first layer of irony in the delicious NCAA tournament matchup on Sunday at the Scottrade Center between Wichita State, seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Region and the first team ever to reach 35-0, and eighth-seeded Kentucky, the powerhouse program that began this season with more McDonald’s All-Americans than starting positions and a vision to go 40-0.
The Wildcats are 25-10 and playing better of late, though their performance in shooting 38 percent on Friday in a 56-49 win over Kansas State looked disjointed at times. Additionally, freshman point guard Andrew Harrison is questionable to play against the Shockers because of an elbow injury suffered late in the round of 64 win.
"At this point," Kentucky coach John Calipari said, "I just don’t want my team to make this game bigger than it is."
Imagine that, Calipari concerned that Kentucky -- which won its eighth national title in 2012 -- might make too much of a meeting with Wichita State, the Missouri Valley Conference champion.
Yes, the Shockers made an unexpected run to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed last season before losing to eventual champion Louisville, but shouldn’t it be coach Gregg Marshall’s players who peer across the court on Sunday with a desire to make a statement?
After all, Marshall, too, holds UK history in reverence. He watched Jack Givens score 41 points in the 1978 title-game win over Duke and recalls fondly his trips to Rupp Arena as a coach at Winthrop and Marshall.
Marshall joked that with the help of a constitutional amendment, he could schedule a game in Wichita against Kentucky.
The Wichita State coach said he didn’t attempt to recruit any of Kentucky’s five starting freshmen. Probably no one else on its roster, either.
"I haven’t checked all the way down with the walk-ons," he said.
According to Marshall, Wichita State does not recruit even "the second level down from Kentucky."
A year ago, Marshall said, he couldn’t have identified Julius Randle, the Wildcats’ star power forward out of Dallas who signed with Kentucky over Texas, Kansas and Florida.
"It’s just a whole different level of recruiting," Marshall said. "They do what works well for them, and we try to do what works well for us."
To extend its success against an opponent bigger and likely more athletic at four positions, the margin for Wichita State error grows slimmer than normal. Marshall and his players mentioned in separate interviews the importance of rebounding well against Kentucky.
That's quite a task. The Wildcats ranked fifth in the nation in the regular season, averaging 41.3 rebounds against the nation’s No. 2 schedule. Wichita State was 25th in rebounding with a schedule strength of 111th.
On Friday, UK dominated Kansas State on the glass 40-28. Randle grabbed 15 boards to go with a game-high 19 points.
"I’ve never seen a 19-year-old as big as [him] in my life," said Baker, the Wichita State sophomore of the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Randle.
Even Kansas’ Bill Self, set to coach the second-seeded Jayhawks against No. 10 seed Stanford in the first game Sunday in St. Louis, which tips at 12:15 p.m. ET, recognizes the intrigue of Kentucky-Wichita State.
"It could be very cool," Self said.
"You have Wichita State, who has had the year. Nobody can deny that. They had as good a year [as] college basketball has seen in recent memory. And then you have one of the truest bluebloods. It should be a fun game."
Just don’t paint the Shockers as an underdog. They don’t feel like the little guys, and the Wildcats know it.
"You know," Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said, "Wichita State has a bunch of swagger right now."
Cauley-Stein, raised in Spearville, Kan., 150 miles west of Wichita, moved for high school to Olathe, Kan., outside of Kansas City. He said he knew little about Wichita State until its recent run of success.
Quite the contrast to the Shockers and their awareness of big, bold Kentucky.
ST. LOUIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s sophomore forward, said it.
Apparently, it’s a good thing UK coach John Calipari wasn’t in the room to hear.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t think we can make a run at it,” Cauley-Stein said. “And you know, a lot of people don’t want to see us make a run at it.
“A lot of people think we’re not going to make it past the first round.”
He said the Wildcats, seeded eighth in the Midwest Region and set to face Kansas State on Friday night, expect to “shock the world” in this NCAA tournament.
“Obviously, my 18-year-olds are not listening to me if that’s the statement they make,” Calipari said, a slight smile on his face before his team took the court at the Scottrade Center to practice. “But that’s OK. Now I will go back and kill them, and it will give me another opportunity to say something to them.”
Calipari said he’s harped on his young team not to worry about matters such as shocking the world. Focus on Kansas State, not the entire tournament. The coach said he did not pay attention to Thursday's games as play opened at other sites, though he admitted later to taking note of Tennessee’s comeback win Wednesday over Iowa.
Regardless, the coach, who took Kentucky to the national title in 2012, is locked in.
For a UK roster that includes nine freshmen, it’s not so easy to share Calipari’sense of perspective. Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer from Olathe, Kan., actually rates as an old man among his teammates at age 20.
Youth served Kentucky well two years ago, as it did Michigan last year in its run to the title game.
The Wildcats have shown signs of progress in recent weeks. Kentucky has lost three times to Florida since Feb. 15 but only twice in its past 11 games against other foes.
In the end, Calipari said he hopes his players hear his message but grow closer as a unit because of the pressure-filled circumstances of the postseason.
“I want them to listen less to me and more to each other,” he said. “That’s how they get empowered.”
ATLANTA -- It’s the matchup that both sides wanted. It’s what fans lurking inside and outside of the Georgia Dome wanted.
And it’s what anyone with any interest in seeing the SEC tournament final wanted.
Florida and Kentucky.
It’s the nation’s No. 1 team against the preseason favorite to win it all. It’s the talk of “40-0” versus the whispers of Florida possibly making another Elite Eight run.
Kentucky, with all those fancy freshmen, was supposed to waltz through this season on the way to its ninth national championship in school history.
Florida’s road was built with so many unknowns that many still aren’t sure how the Gators got into the position of being the country’s top-ranked team and staring at the No. 1 overall seed, regardless of what happens Sunday.
With the Gators’ feisty 56-49 win over Tennessee and Kentucky’s 70-58 victory against Georgia on Saturday, the stage is set to showcase the SEC’s best teams and the league’s only assured NCAA tournament locks on Sunday.
“But what a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that.
“My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again.”
Calipari laughed when he said that, but no one would be shocked if that statement carried more truth than anything. The Gators swept Kentucky during the regular season for just the fifth time in school history. The first game was a rugged 69-59 win in Lexington, Ky., while the second was an 84-65 shellacking in Gainesville, Fla., during the Gators’ senior night.
It was a game that stamped a 1-seed on Florida’s Gator head logo and left many wondering if Kentucky could even make any sort of postseason run.
“We played as a bunch of individuals on their senior day,” Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “Now, we’re sharing the ball, and that’s been our turnaround.
“It’s going to be a different feel, like it’s not even the same team.”
After two impressive team wins by the Wildcats and two slow first halves by Florida, Kentucky appears to be a more formidable opponent for the nation’s No. 1 team.
“We want this game bad,” said Kentucky guard James Young, who has averaged 17.5 points in two SEC tournament games. “We’re just going to treat it like every other game and just come out and fight.
“We’re going to come out with a little bit more energy in this game than what we had in the last two games.”
Florida got here with minimal flash and a bevy of teamwork, while the Wildcats took a bumpier, more frustrating path that seems to have smoothed a bit in Atlanta. The Gators have been a cohesive unit for most of the season, leading them to a school-record 25 straight wins and an unblemished conference record for the first time ever. Florida also became the first SEC team to go undefeated during an 18-game SEC schedule.
The question now is if Florida has hit a bit of a wall. The wins continue, but back-to-back shaky first halves have shown holes in the Gators’ armor. A loss Sunday wouldn’t jeopardize Florida’s seeding, but players say they’ve come too far and want the streak to continue into April with a trip to the Final Four and national championship.
“That’s the plan, but we have to do a better job of coming out ready to play because the deeper we get into the season -- the deeper we get into the tournament -- the teams are going to get better,” Florida guard Michael Frazier II said. “So we have to do a better job of being ready to play from the start.”
The thing about these two teams is that they operate in completely different ways. Until recently, the Wildcats have had too much individual play, while Florida has always focused on the unit. Kentucky has a core of high school All-Americans, while the Gators have greatly improved veterans.
Kentucky basketball is exciting and high-flying when it’s clicking. Florida ball is all about fundamentals, defense and control.
Think Miami Heat versus the San Antonio Spurs.
After two days, Kentucky has a little hotter hand, but Florida’s blue-collar approach hasn’t failed the Gators yet.
“We keep pounding the brick, keep pounding the brick,” Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “Eventually, we’re going to break through the wall.”
ATLANTA -- The start certainly wasn’t what Kentucky or its fans wanted, but after about seven minutes of watching LSU out-muscle and out-work the Wildcats, Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinal turned into a Big Blue highlight reel.
There were dazzling dunks, slippery steals and bodacious blocks that brought the Georgia Dome, disguised as a little Rupp Arena, to its feet, as the Wildcats thumped LSU 85-67.
“There for a while, I didn’t even realize we were up by 10,” said sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who had six blocks. “We were just playing with so much fun and energy that I didn’t even look at the clock. The game just kinda took care of itself.
A team that entered the SEC tournament as losers of three of their last four and as former Top 25 members, the Wildcats (23-9, 12-6 SEC) met a tenacious, upset-minded LSU team searching for a way to creep into the NCAA tournament. While this certainly isn’t the Kentucky team that John Calipari or Big Blue Nation expected to see at this point, it’s one that gained a little more confidence as it looks to navigate its way to an SEC tournament title before dancing into the NCAA tournament.
But what changed for a team headed by five freshmen that had a knack for playing alone, rather than as a unit?
Something about a “tweak” that Calipari has mentioned but wouldn’t dive into. It was implemented during the Wildcats’ practice Sunday, but the mystery behind it remains just that.
Maybe it was to get guards, starting with point man Andrew Harrison, to penetrate more inside and kick the ball out, which became a staple Kentucky’s offense against the Tigers.
The emphasis on spreading the ball around and finding different ways to score opened the floor up for the Cats, as four of Kentucky’s five starters ended the night in double figures, including Harrison, who had 11 points and eight assists.
The Cats finished the game with 15 assists to nine turnovers.
Maybe it was collapsing on LSU forward Johnny O’Bryant on defense to frustrate him and destroy his rhythm, which the Cats did. They hounded him even more by going right at him offensively, eventually getting him in foul trouble midway through the second half before he fouled out late.
Maybe it was to communicate more and use each other as opposed to going at it alone in a game that this team needed in order to rejuvenate a program that has had a baffling number of personalities all year.
“Regardless of whatever you think the tweak was, it started on the defensive end and that’s what led to us getting easier baskets and us getting a big lead,” said freshman forward Julius Randle, who scored 17.
Whatever the tweak was, it worked for Kentucky and it served as a confidence booster for a team looking to make a couple of postseason runs.
What might be the most impressive aspect of Kentucky’s win was the fact that it had to grind this one out a bit during both halves. The Tigers (19-13, 9-9) opened things up with a 6-0 lead that quickly mounted 22-14 with 12:59 remaining in the first half, until Kentucky rolled off an inspiring 23-3 run to make it 37-25 at the 3:54 mark.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” Randle said. “But, like coach says, when the raindrops hit your shoulders, how are you going to react? I think we reacted pretty good. We were able to bust it back open and ended up winning by 18.”
The Wildcats spread the wealth, as five players scored during their hellacious run, and put a stranglehold on LSU’s once-hot offense, helping them miss 10 of 11 shots during that span and forcing five turnovers.
“It just felt like new season for us,” said freshman guard James Young, who had a game-high 21 points, including 17 in the first half. “We put everything behind us. It started off 0-0, that’s what we feel like.”
There are two things to gain from Kentucky’s dominating win: There’s still work to be done, but this team looked a lot hungrier than the one that sluggishly closed the regular season.
And think of all the missed opportunities in this blowout. Kentucky missed 15 free throws and had a trouble hitting easy shots near the rim at times.
Despite the talent and athleticism the Tigers possess, LSU isn’t a tournament team, so the verdict is still out on how good Kentucky will look when it faces a team that will be playing later this month. But the selfishness and lack of identity that plagued this team all season vanished under the Georgia Dome lights for just one night.
The Cats must keep from reverting to their old, unsatisfying ways, but players say they’ve regained their focus.
This team is far from perfect and it’s probably going to need to play at this level from here on out to end things in a special way, but this team is maturing. It’s staying the course, regardless of its ups and downs.
“The biggest thing is we can’t be happy with it,” Randle said. “We gotta keep going and make a run.”
No one shouted. No one argued. “It wasn’t heated,” freshman center Dakari Johnson -- who, in one much-discussed example, was left lying on the floor by his teammates after a hustle play Tuesday night -- told reporters this week. Instead, one by one, the Wildcats just talked. They shared their opinions. They apologized to each other for not playing hard. They resolved to do better next time.
It was the kind of thing a coach might love to hear about his players. John Calipari’s response?
On Saturday, the Wildcats played. UK recorded its most impressive performance of the season -- an 84-79 win at Missouri that was one part offensive blitzkrieg and one part endurance run. The last time Calipari’s team looked this good, and this cohesive, came more than a month ago in their home win over Louisville. They’ve never played this well on the road.
So, hey: That team meeting worked, right?
“Yeah, it helped us, I guess,” Calipari said.
The Kentucky coach delivered that, his shortest answer of Saturday afternoon’s postgame news conference, with a smirk and a shake of the head and a layer of sarcasm as dense as the ice that blanketed Columbia, Mo., all weekend. It was the verbal eye-roll a frustrated father gives a son's sudden, late-teenage epiphany that maybe girls would be more interested in someone who doesn’t spend so much time in the basement playing "Battlefield 4." Gee, kid, you think?
That, in short, is the dynamic Calipari has been dealing with all season. For as much time as he’s spent coaching his team on matters of actual basketball -- on the spacing and ball movement and fluidity they so thrillingly displayed in Saturday’s 84-points-in-67-possessions outburst -- he has spent even more time straining to explain to his young group the mental basics most elite college basketball teams take for granted.
Such as why it’s important to play hard on very possession. Or why your emotions should hinge on the team’s performance and not your own. Why you point to your teammate when he gets you a bucket. Why you pick your teammates up off the floor. Why you have to care.
“I told them, ‘If I have to coach like I was 35 years old again, I will,’” Calipari said. “I was very much more aggressive, hands-on. Do you know what I mean by hands-on? Like grabbing, hands-on. ... I told them, ‘My teams play with fire. They play with emotion. They play with enthusiasm. And you will, or I won’t play you.' And that’s all I told them.”
Calipari also set up new rules for practice: If a player did something right -- a good pass, or a good screen or a good defensive rotation -- and no one paid him a compliment, the coach stopped practice until praise was delivered.
It paid obvious dividends Saturday, at least on the offensive end. Aaron and Andrew Harrison were engaged, aggressive and efficient. James Young worked hard off screens to find open shots and made 4-of-7 from 3. Julius Randle got him two of those shots with good spacing and pinpoint kick-outs and closed the game with a key series of rim attacks down the stretch.
They were far from perfect, especially defensively. Missouri guards Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown got 55 of their combined 61 points on a relentless series of right-handed drives to the rim, drives Kentucky didn’t adjust to until the closing moments. And the Wildcats’ transition defense, even on made baskets, was often nonexistent. But they managed to withstand the Tigers’ second-half frenzy, and escape with a big road win, all the same.
Just as telling, perhaps: When Kentucky reserve Dominique Hawkins fell to the floor Saturday, Alex Poythress and Andrew Harrison sprinted to his side.
“The stuff that anyone’s saying about this team and these players, they can change it,” Calipari said. “It’s not like, ‘Well, you can’t play.’ It’s that you don’t compete, you don’t play with enthusiasm, you don’t sprint, you’re into your own self. Well, you can change all that.”
Calipari might roll his eyes at his earnest, serious teenagers -- those kids and their team meetings, huh? But one way or another, the Wildcats seem to be getting the message, and making those changes, bit by frustrating bit.
“We weren’t trying to impress anybody,” Randle said. “It was just something that we needed to do.”
How impatient is John Calipari? On Monday, ahead of a trip to LSU, he admitted to reporters (in an otherwise characteristically positive news conference) that he just wished his young team was “further along.”
You know what happened next: The Wildcats laid an 87-82 egg in Baton Rouge, La., a game they started in a 22-6 hole and finished by failing to foul LSU with 13 seconds left to play. UK allowed 29 points and nine rebounds (on 12-of-20 shooting) to Tigers senior center Johnny O'Bryant; it gave up 1.13 points per possession to a team shooting 32.0 percent from 3 in SEC play.
With the exception of swingman James Young, who shot the ball well en route to 23 points, pretty much every Wildcat played horribly. Julius Randle submitted his worst game of the season -- a disengaged 3-for-11, six-point, five-rebound, three-turnover effort. Willie Cauley-Stein made one field goal and had three points in 18 minutes. Until three last-ditch 3-pointers in the final 43 seconds, Aaron Harrison was 2-of-10 with five points and four turnovers. His brother, Andrew Harrison, finished 2-of-7 and earned the distinction of being the first player in recent memory to have his head coach literally come on the court to push him into the correct position during open play.
“This team is a work in progress,” Calipari said. “It’s all about a process. The process we’re at right now is: Will we have the mental toughness to break through and really be the team we want to be?”
But what kind of team is Kentucky, anyway?
The most disconcerting thing about Tuesday night’s loss -- besides the general lack of “mental toughness” Calipari cited -- is that LSU managed to out-UK UK. LSU’s interior strength prevented matchup issues, sure, but the Wildcats have managed to play top-15-level basketball for most of the season on the strength of their interior play. They rebound more of their misses (43.5 percent) than any team in the country. They shoot a higher rate of free throws to field goals (55.1 percent) than all but five teams. While the Harrison twins, and to a lesser extent Young, have stuttered in their development and production, Randle and Cauley-Stein have managed to anchor the Wildcats on both ends of the floor.
That didn’t happen Tuesday. And while you might chalk up Randle’s off night as just that, Cauley-Stein’s inconsistency is more troubling. When both players are active and engaged, the Harrisons can struggle in the backcourt and Young can shoot his season average of 34 percent from 3 (which is hardly terrible, but also not good enough to erase errors elsewhere) and Kentucky can still win. The reverse is also true -- remember that Kentucky didn’t have Randle in the second half against Louisville and still managed to finish off a win. But that either-or proposition means Randle has to be great every night. It makes UK’s margin for error unusually slim.
All in all, a road loss at a tough matchup isn’t apocalyptic. But it does make Saturday afternoon’s game at Missouri an important one in Kentucky’s development. We keep talking about the Cats’ ceiling, about what they’ll look like in March, about how fearsome they could be when they finally put it all together -- the backcourt, the frontcourt, the drive, the mental energy.
It’s February now, though, and we’re still not sure. When will Kentucky take that next step? Or, more precisely: Can it?