CRAWFORD | Forget IU, this UK team has all the challenges it nee - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Forget IU, this UK team has all the challenges it needs

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LEXINGTON, KY. (WDRB) -- Had the series continued along its regular progression, Saturday would've been the day that the University of Kentucky played host to No. 1-ranked Indiana in Rupp Arena.

Instead of an atmosphere in which you could hear head coach John Calipari's instructions to players clearly, even into the far reaches of the docile crowd of 22,285 for UK's 74-46 win over Portland, you'd have seen madness, a CBS national broadcast, overflow national media and absolute bedlam from a sure-fire 24,000-plus crowd.

For fans and those of us who love college basketball, it's a shame that game didn't happen.

But for this UK team? It's probably a good thing it didn't.

That's not a knock on these Wildcats. And it's not saying they wouldn't have rallied and played their hearts out and maybe even pulled off an upset, or come close.

But Indiana is not the opponent UK needed on Saturday. These emerging Wildcats got about what they needed from Portland. A fan at Calipari's post-game radio show asked if UK is getting closer to being ready for league play.

"If we had to play in our league right now, we'd be finishing last," Calipari said. "So thank goodness we're a way away from that. . . . Right now Florida is about 35 points better than us, maybe 40. The good news is we don't have to play them for a while."

Right now, IU is quite a bit better than UK. An IU loss at this point could've been UK's second at Rupp, leaving the Wildcats at 5-4 and Big Blue Nation on Red Alert. Such an alert would've sent UK into final exams fretting about failure, and not the kind you worry about in the classroom.

UK opened the season with a solid win over Maryland. It then played to a respectable loss to Duke. It was beaten soundly at Notre Dame, and the effects of that loss were still in evidence when the Wildcats lost to Baylor 36 hours later in Rupp Arena.

There were some young players wondering what the heck they'd gotten themselves into at that point, and a coach who often seemed beside himself on the sidelines.

It's not that Calipari ducks difficult games. He took a team full of freshmen -- yes, very talented freshmen, but still freshmen -- and opened away from home against Maryland and Duke. He took them to Notre Dame, one of the more difficult venues in the nation.

I asked him on Saturday whether that early difficulty sped him up in developing this team, or slowed him down. For all he learned about his team, he also likely is dealing with propping up some players emotionally, too. But Calipari didn't answer in terms of speed.

"We did what we did because we needed to figure out early," Calipari said. "Because we didn't have anybody returning. But it gave us a clear picture now that we've got three weeks to get this right. . . . I'm working on as much mental toughness and the mentality this team has. It's not all their fault. We played Maryland and Duke to start off. We all think everything's good because we only lost to Duke by three. It was a three-point game, so we're good.

"We weren't right. I knew we weren't right. That falls on me. I'm trying to correct the mistakes I made and make sure that we get these guys after it."

While it may not have been optimal, playing the tougher games early was necessary. But the discovery phase of UK's season is over for a time. Calipari made clear Saturday what his team needs now is repetition, conditioning, toughness and large doses of polishing. Playing IU might've helped with that. It also might've hurt.

This week is finals week. UK will take Monday and Tuesday off and go light the rest of the week, with a game against Lipscomb in Rupp Arena on Saturday. After that, Calipari will begin another round of testing for his team.

"This is an unbelievable three weeks," Calipari said. "We're practicing twice (Sunday). . . . From Friday night on, there's no days off, nothing. We'll be going three times a day. So for the next two weeks, we'll be going at least five of the days three times a day. I'm fine. I'll be exhausted, but what the heck. The whole point is to help these young people think differently. They've got to think differently than they're thinking."

Calipari described it this way. He said a guy, for example, Kyle Wiltjer, will dive on the floor for a loose ball in practice because the reward for that is getting off the practice court sooner. But in a game, Calipari will see Wiltjer near a loose ball not diving.

"What's that say to me?" he said. "It says, 'I'm only doing it (in practice) because you're making me do it. I don't want to play that way.' We've got to change that mentality."

UK threw two or three stretches of smothering defenses on Portland to wrap up the game. It blocked a season-high 12 shots, including a season-best seven from Nerlens Noel. But Calipari was bothered that UK was outscored in the opening minutes of the second half, in what is becoming a trend, and said that his team is breaking down more often than it will be able to afford against better teams.

"Here is what happens. In a normal college game, if you have two teams fighting, one team will hang around for the half," Calipari said. "About the 12-minute mark, 10-minute mark, 11-minute mark, they'll let go of the rope. That is when you go on that 12-0, 12-2, 14-2, and that's the ballgame. But that's been us, the team that let go. So we're trying to get that to be who we are. Now, the way we finished the game, and again, I had to coax them into playing, I shouldn't have to. I shouldn't be on a guy, play, scramble, stay down. What? What is that, strategy? I mean, that's basically how I'm coaching right now."

He said he has posed a question to his team, and its effort over the next three weeks likely will provide the answer.

"My question to my team: There's eight or 10 teams that are better than all the rest of the teams in the country. Do you want to be one of those eight or 10 teams?" Calipari said. "What are you willing to do to be one of those eight or 10 teams? Or you don't want to be? Too hard. I don't want to be one of those eight or 10. You tell me we have to go three-a-days to be top 50, hope we make the NCAA tournament? If we're in the NIT, it's a good run to New York. We can be that team, too. I mean, which team do you want to be?

"I'm looking at everybody in the country saying we're probably 50 to 100 right now, but we could be top 10, top 8. Those eight are the only ones that truly have a chance to win the whole thing. Do you want to be those or not? That was my challenge to them."

IU would've been a fun game for everybody. It would've revealed more about UK's blemishes. But Calipari doesn't need help with his team's questions. What he needs now is to work on answers. Over the next three weeks, he hopes to find some.

"I cannot wait," he said. "I won't be leaving campus for anything. I'll be staying right here with these guys every day."

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