LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- How tight was this University of Kentucky basketball team wound after its 30-point loss to Tennessee? Willie Cauley-Stein said he didn't want to leave his room. He described it after Wednesday night's 74-70 win over Vanderbilt.
"I just closed the door and only went out if I had to eat. I even put a sheet up over my window so nobody could see in," he said.
He described the atmosphere around him and his teammates as , "hate." When asked if it was too strong a word, he declined. "No. It was hate. Vulgar. You can look at my Twitter. I'm so laid back and chill. In my head, I'm like, 'What did I do? Why am I getting hated on. Where was this three weeks ago?' Now I'm thinking, dang, this is what Nerlens went through just coming here. There were Indiana fans. We don't even play Indiana, why you Tweeting me? I don't understand it."
John Calipari's best coaching move of the year might've been to put on a football helmet. After Tuesday night's shootaround, Calipari told the players they were going to do something a little different. He had them play dodgeball -- players versus coaches.
The players had a blast. Cauley-Stein said he'd been looking forward to going to see his brother who was in town. But when Calipari said they were going to play dodge ball, he said everything else was forgotten, the negativity, the tension, the 30-point loss.
"It was like all that other stuff just melted away," Cauley-Stein said.
Afterward, Calipari told his team, "That fun you just had? Why don't you have it on the court when you're playing basketball?"
On Wednesday, they did. UK beat Vanderbilt by four. Nobody's going to hail it as a breakthrough win. Vandy is not a good team. The Commodores reached 70 points in a Southeastern Conference game for only the second time. The first time was against Mississippi State.
UK led by as many as 14, but could not hit the gas to put Vandy away.
Still, the Wildcats played with enthusiasm and energy. They executed well on offense. Cauley-Stein had his best game as a Wildcat -- 20 points on 8 of 10 shooting from the field. And if nothing else, UK found some confidence that it badly needed.
The importance of this win? Nothing was going to be salvaged of this season if the Wildcats didn't come away from tonight feeling positive. Forget the opponent or margin, UK's players came away feeling like they'd taken a step forward.
And what they think, at this point, is probably more important than the reality of the situation.
Calipari tried a few new things. He opened up the offense a bit, tried to increase the spacing a little. And the Wildcats did a good job of getting Cauley-Stein the ball in the post and just letting him work.
Ryan Harrow came to Calipari on Tuesday and asked if he'd let him start at point guard. Calipari liked Calipari's eagerness, and he let him take the wheel. Harrow responded with 12 points and 4 assists in a turnover-free 32 minutes.
"Well, we opened up the court because, one, I thought we needed -- we can beat people on the dribble, and if guys are next to the rim, you can't. So we were bringing our five-man up. We are a good enough three-point shooting team -- you've got to guard people. You've got to guard Alex (Poythress); you've got to guard Kyle (Wiltjer); you've got to guard Julius (Mays). You can't just say, well, we'll pack everybody in as you spread the court. You can't do that, because we can make 3s.
"But it also gives Ryan room to move and get his confidence. So we opened up the court so he could get into some pick-and-rolls. And you know, he needs to play more confident, and he did today."
Defensively, UK was a bit more aggressive. On pick-and-rolls, instead of daring people to come inside for blocked shots, the Wildcats jumped the driver with a weak-side defender looking to come up with steals.
Steals? UK has ranked in the bottom third in the country in turnovers forced for the past two years, mainly because they didn't need turnovers, with so many blocked shots leading to transition. But UK may need a few more turnovers now, and while they didn't get many -- Vandy had only seven turnovers in the game and only one in the second half -- the defense against the high pick and roll showed a new look.
"Defensively, we did some funky things," Calipari said.
And it all started with dodgeball. It's funny, nobody pegged this team for a bunch of Average Joe's coming into the season, but that identity might suit them well.
UK pulled one more motivational string before the Vanderbilt game, but nobody knew whom to credit. The school's video department had the players tape a new pregame introduction video with players repeated the phrases, "This is the biggest game on our schedule," and, "Let's fight."
"I thought it was kind of silly when we were doing it," Cauley-Stein said. "But then as we were watching it during starting lineups, it fired us up. I kind of teared up."
Calipari has been asking for fight. He got some against Vandy.
That doesn't mean the problems have been solved. When Cauley-Stein went to the bench, the floodgates opened for Vanderbilt driving for layups. If he gets tired or gets into foul trouble, the Wildcats have a problem.
But Calipari will focus on one problem at a time. Friday night, before the Wildcats play Missouri in Rupp Arena in a College GameDay matchup, he's going to play Wiffle Ball with his team.
If that's what it takes to find a way to the Big Dance, you get the feeling Calipari would even play musical chairs.
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