BOZICH | Calipari Sees The Kentucky Team He Wants
COLUMBIA, Mo. (WDRB) – Just when you've finished researching the news that the University of Kentucky basketball team has already lost more games (five) than the last 13 NCAA champions had lost by February 1, the Wildcats knock Missouri into Kansas, making you wonder how much that statistic matters.
Make it Kentucky 84, Missouri 79 – and consider coach John Calipari as pleased with his team as he's been all season.
"The team that I want them to be is the team that played today," Calipari said.
Just when you're certain that the Wildcats have shown they don't belong in the same sentence with Syracuse, Arizona, Michigan State, Kansas and the other leading title contenders, they make you delete that paragraph from your column.
By sharing the ball. By valuing possessions. By digging in after giving up all but three points of a 16-point lead in the final 14 ½ minutes – on the road.
"It was pretty big, especially in this building," said Kentucky forward Julius Randle. "Pretty big time. It's a tough environment to play in."
Just when you're convinced Calipari's team is absolutely vulnerable away from Rupp Arena, they bounce into Mizzou Arena and treat the home team like the intramural runners-up, beating the Tigers in the paint and from the perimeter.
"We just came out sharing the ball," said UK freshman guard Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 21 points. "It was fun actually. That's what you get. Coach said have fun. When we play together we have a lot more fun."
This was balanced Kentucky as the Wildcats moved to 16-5, 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference. Four guys – Harrison and his twin brother, Andrew, Randle and James Young – all scored at least 14 points.
Young shot the three-pointer as confidently as most guys shoot layups, making four of seven. No wonder he scored 20. The work that Young and the Harrison twins did from the perimeter made it too risky for Missouri to double-team the beastly Randle. So he punished the Tigers with his trademark spin move, contributing 18 with nine boards.
This was versatile Kentucky. The three-point shooting was excellent. But so was Kentucky's work around the basket. The Wildcats didn't get intoxicated by the three-pointer. In fact they didn't take a three-pointer in the final 8 ½ minutes while they were protecting a seven-point lead.
Consider Calipari more pleased by that than he was by the players' only meeting that Alex Poythress called after the loss at Louisiana State Tuesday.
"Quit holding it, bouncing it," Calipari said "Either make a play or get rid of it. When we did, we looked good. When we didn't, we looked bad.
"It's hard because their whole careers, they got the ball, they explored whether they could score. And again they do it. And one more time. Then they passed it.
"You don't play that way now. You catch it and make your play. Shoot it if you want. Don't hold it, bounce it, come down, set up or look around. We're not that good when we play that way."
This was poised Kentucky. The Wildcats' freshmen had several opportunities to play like freshmen. They did not.
They needed a basket after a four-point play by Missouri's Jabari Brown cut the Kentucky lead to 78-75 with 1:29 left. They got one. From Randle. A jumper in the lane. Tough shot. Clutch shot.
Missouri responded in a hurry. So Kentucky needed another basket to protect a one-possession lead. The second response was more impressive. The ball worked from Andrew Harrison to Aaron to Andrew to Young to Andrew to Aaron, who flashed from the left side of the baseline, wiggled free under the goal and made a reverse layup.
"If you go baseline you have to hit the man in the corner or you have to score," Aaron Harrison said.
This time Missouri could not respond. Ball game.
Now the Wildcats have a chance to build a winning streak of two, three, four games. Mississippi visits Rupp Arena Tuesday night. Then Kentucky faces its two most winnable SEC road games – Mississippi State and Auburn, teams that started Saturday a combined 4-10 in the league.
Three more wins would put Kentucky at 9-2 when Florida visits Feb. 15.
"They know (people are doubting them)," Calipari said. "The stuff that anyone's saying about this team and these players, they can change it.
"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. You can change all that."
Maybe they started changing it Saturday.
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