ATLANTA (WDRB) -- The only thing John Calipari really tweaked was the media. But that doesn't mean he didn't do some coaching this week.
Sometimes symbolism is as important as anything. You send messages, especially with a young team, in everything you do and every way you do it. So what did Calipari do?
He had the players shred DVDs of every game this season. Tore them up. They're gone -- in a pile to be thrown out with the trash.
How did you feel as you were doing that, Julius Randle?
The message: What matters is the stretch of games coming up, not the stretch you just played. They no longer exist.
By this time of year, Calipari generally has his team practicing in a bubble. The rallying cry of practice is "don't get hurt." This week, they put in extra time. They were physical. They had practices that would give football coach Mark Stoops a run for his money. Even the day before the game, they had their 50-minute workout at the Georgia Dome, then Calipari took his team to the Atlanta Hawks' practice facility and went an hour more.
Message: It's time to work. You better get tough.
"The issue becomes, what if someone got hurt?" Calipari said. "I was willing to roll the dice, because we were not going to respond unless we did that."
The response: UK pounded LSU 85-67 before a raucous crowd of Wildcat partisans in the Georgia Dome, in what may have been its most impressive win of the season.
Some perspective is warranted. LSU is an NIT team. This wasn't any watershed moment. At least, we can't call it that yet. But LSU is a team that beat UK during the regular season and took the Wildcats to overtime in Rupp Arena. It was progress.
And goodness, these UK players needed it. And their fans needed it, too. And I'll tell you who needed it as much as both of those -- their coach. He toyed with the media and fans all week about a myterious "tweak" of his team. That only served to alleviate some of the heat. But he was working.
It's been a tough couple of months for Calipari. He's been jumped on with both feet, and some of it he brought on himself with some erratic and down-right cantankerous behavior. But he's also not wrong when he notes that there are those who are all to happy to do the jumping.
One win over LSU doesn't make all that go away. But it does help. UK fans needed to see its players expending energy and being aggressive and having fun. And they were having fun. There were smiles and there seemed to be a good bit of communication and picking each other up.
Forget about the tweak. This is where the difference was in this game. When the Wildcats needed to stabilize themselves, they turned to their defense, not to the sideline, not to their own individual offensive skills, but to hard-nosed, half-court defense.
"Whatever you think the tweak was, it started on the defensive end," Randle said. "That's what led to us getting easier baskets."
LSU got out to a great start, made 8 of its first 10 shots. Then UK went on a 21-3 run. It stifled LSU in the paint, and extended on its three-point shooters. The offense followed. It didn't hurt that James Young opened with a couple of quick three-pointers.
The Wildcats penetrated on the dribble early and kicked out for open perimeter jumpers. And that was by design. Calipari knows the Wildcats aren't going to be a great three-point shooting team. He just can't have them be a bad three-point shooting team.
"In these tournaments, even when you're a terrific defensive team, you have to score, because the other team may be able to," Calipari said. "So you got to make shots. We made those today. You can't go 2-19 from the three and win, not when all the teams are good. So that's one of the emphases that we talked about that and we did it."
It wasn't a perfect night. The Wildcats got up 16, then LSU got back to within three in the first half. But again, they turned on the defense.
Call it toughness. Call it being physical. Call it being aggressive. Whatever UK was on defense, it worked. They scored 12 fast-break points in the game, the most they've had in a game since beating Ole Miss on Feb. 4, and more than they had in their last two games of the season combined (8).
More than digging in on defense, the team showed the ability to make adjustments. They rotated quickly when doubling the post, and on stunting ballhandlers when they got into trapping position.
"One of our things throughout the whole season was helping each other out," Cauley-Stein said. "So even this week, one of our big emphases was just on stunting, and when a dude drives stunting and getting back to your own man, and that's what we did to stop them offensively and get our runs going. Our defense, it felt like we had eight people out there."
UK has been a great rebounding team all season and it was again Friday, outscoring LSU 21-7 on second-chance points. But it has done that and lost games this year. It outscored LSU 26-12 from the free-throw line and shot 41 to LSU's 24. That, too, it generally does.
What Calipari was most pleased with was his team's 15 assists (a season-high eight by Andrew Harrison) and only nine turnovers.
"We shared the ball," Calipari said. ". . . But again, some of this stuff we shoudl have done before and it's on me as a coach. I think you saw a little different team today with what we had been working on. And then you ask the question, well, why weren't you doing it early? I don't know. We have a bunch of freshmen. I was trying to figure out how they needed to play."
Young had 21 points and four assists. Julius Randle had an off night, was just 4 of 12 from the field, but still had 17 points and 16 rebounds. Dakari Johnson had 9 points 11 rebounds, and the Harrisons combined for 25 points and 10 assists. The Wildcats also blocked 11 shots.
I'm not saying they've turned it around. I'm not saying it's anything more than it was -- a chance for Big Blue Nation to exhale.
But it is better than the alternative. If you saw this team down the stretch of the season struggling with far inferior teams, you wondered even if it would be able to manage that.
"They want to do well and they want to win," Calipari said. "They have been built up and all the other stuff, and they had a lot of stuff. We're playing all freshmen, couple of sophomores. It's been a tough road, and I think they had a fabulous year, I really do. Yeah, there were two losses, maybe three, that I thought we should have gotten. One non-conference, a couple of conference wins, should have won those games. We didn't. So, okay. Difference between three games and where we are? Come on. I think this team has done well. Now let's see if we can continue on this path and really make some people mad."
After he said that, Calipari caught himself and kind of laughed.
"Why do I do this?" he said. "I can't help myself. Then you all know it's true. But go ahead . . . "
Why does he do it? He needs it, in a way. He can't get rid of detractors, so he might as well spar with them. They might want to watch this team carefully. It hasn't turned things around yet. But it also hasn't wilted.
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