LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — For Kentucky, Game Day has arrived.
Don't look for much rehash of the Wildcats' 64-56 victory at Auburn Wednesday night here. It was a good win inasmuch as every road win is a good win. But that's about it. Auburn is not good. You'll tell me they only lost at home to Florida by seven. I'll tell you they gave up 111 points at home in a loss to Northwestern State. Agree to disagree.
What none of us can disagree on is that when Julius Randle decides to play, it's a very good thing for the Wildcats, and he made that decision with just under 12 minutes to play at Auburn, and that was that. Also, the dunk by Willie Cauley-Stein in the first half — big time.
Regardless, the real proving ground now is at Rupp Arena, on Saturday night, 9 p.m., ESPN's GameDay cameras rolling.
It's about all you could ask for if you're UK coach John Calipari. The game is at home, where the Wildcats have their lone win of the season over a likely NCAA Tournament team. It's also where the Wildcats have been unbeaten all season.
After the Auburn win, Calipari as much as said it, about as clearly as it can be said.
"It's time. It's time," he said. "Enough. I can't say it anymore. I've said it a thousand ways. Why am I saying it publicly? I want them to read it. Every now and then, I give Jerry (Tipton, Lexington Herald-Leader beat writer) good heroin that he can spread around."
Someday, maybe close to retirement, I expect to turn on a radio and hear that new favorite of mid-morning radio programs: The Jerry T and Cal Show. Heroin? What is this, "The Wire?" Is Tipton Lexington's version of Bubbles? But I digress.
Early thoughts on this game:
1. Kentucky is going to give Florida some problems with its defense. The Gators aren't the best offensive team in the nation. They're good, but not great, and Kentucky's length is tough to deal with, especially when the Wildcats want to play defense — and they should want to on Saturday. The one worry about UK's defense: On the season, it has allowed opponents to shoot only 43.4 percent from two-point range, and that ranks 27th in the nation. That's a good thing. But in SEC play, the Wildcats have given up 45.8 percent from two-point range, and that's seventh in the league, which means teams have figured out how to get to the rim and score inside points on them. Florida can do that. Cauley-Stein needs to come to play. Dakari Johnson has been great in recent games, but Cauley-Stein is the one who changes the game the most for opposing offenses.
2. The biggest question: will the Wildcats match the more experienced Gators' "will to win." I hesitate to use such a cliched phrase, but sometimes it is that simple. Florida has displayed an impressive level of "want to" all season — especially in its last win, at Tennessee, a game that had all the makings of an upset loss. But Florida's seasoned players, like Patric Young, wouldn't let that happen. Florida is smart, poised and executes as well as anyone in the nation. Calipari has said it. Kentucky likely can't beat those types of team in execution. Can it beat them with hustle, passion, talent and hard work?
We'll save more for later. Those are decent starting points.
For the Wildcats, we can't say they've made progress over the past four games, because the first of those four straight wins, at Missouri, was the most impressive. But now comes a new kind of test. We get to see how this young team performs when it is in a kind of back-to-the-wall situation against a top-level team near the end of the season.
There are teams that respond to these kinds of challenges, and there are teams that don't. And while this one is at home, it is a challenge nonetheless.
"We're still, our emotions are tied to our offense," Calipari told reporters after the Auburn win. "I told them after the game, ‘At some point, guys, if you want to be special, that's got to change. Your emotions have got to be tied to our defense, team-wise. That's it, nothing else.' But it's hard. And they said, ‘Coach, we're trying but it's really hard.'"
It's the essential conflict in what Calipari is trying to do — "players' first" program versus "team-first" team. It isn't necessarily a conflict, of course. The program can be players first if the players will be team-first. They can co-exist. But that takes a certain maturity level, and it's hard to build that in less than one year.
"Normally it takes you two to three years to get that," Calipari said. "We're on steroids. We got to do it in eight months. So we'll see. . . . I want them to do stuff that probably it's not fair to ask of all freshmen. But that's my job, to ask for the impossible. That's why our kids stand out. That's why they go. We're asking to do the impossible. That's what we do."
Mission impossible? I don't know that I'd go that far. In fact, with the talent at his disposal and the league he plays in, Calipari has some margin for error.
But that doesn't help with developing the kind of team spirit Calipari needs now. He acknowledged it, talking about his 2012 national champions.
"We had veterans," he said. "We had four veterans on that team that could talk to them. Plus you had Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist) that tied his emotions to his energy. You had Anthony Davis that just wanted to win, could (not) care less about scoring. So they tied nothing to their offense. Now the one that did was my little point guard (Marquis Teague), and it took me half a year to get him right. But I didn't have five of them. I got five and six right now."
The Wildcats get yet another chance to make a statement to the nation on Saturday. If Kentucky beats Florida, it can begin a run. It will have no reason not to build momentum for its next text — the season finale at Florida — before entering an SEC Tournament when, like always, it will be the de facto home team.
Even if the Wildcats don't beat Florida, they can mount a run. There's still time, and some of the lessons Calipari is teaching are lessons that can take root in a day as easily as in a month. That's important to remember.
But Calipari doesn't want to wait. You heard him: It's time.