CRAWFORD | UK's Calipari hoping for a 'punch in the face' at Lou - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | UK's Calipari hoping for a 'punch in the face' at Louisville

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Final exams were over before Christmas, but what University of Kentucky coach John Calipari really wants for his basketball team is a legitimate test.

Nobody has come within single-digits of the No. 1-ranked Wildcats this season. Columbia threw a scare into UK for 30 minutes, but nobody really believed the Wildcats would lose. Texas trailed by only five with 1:30 left and with 1:11 left missed a three-pointer that would've made it a three-point game. The Longhorns wound up losing by 12.

It's kind of come to this. In trying to make the point that his team isn't invincible, Calipari said Friday, “Boston U. . . . had us beat with six minutes (left.)” BU trailed by 17 with six minutes left.

When the Wildcats visit No. 4 Louisville on Saturday, Calipari has told his players it will be a legitimate test.

“We know we're not going to run away with it or blow them out or anything like that,” UK sophomore guard Andrew Harrison said. “It'll be a hard-fought game.”

As much as a blowout would delight Big Blue Nation, Calipari might find such a back-and-forth affair more useful. The Wildcats may not play another nationally ranked team all (regular) season. Saturday's game is their first true road game of the season.

At least, that's the line Calipari is taking going into the game.

“This is a great game for us,” Calipari said. “. . . We need somebody to punch us in the face. . . . They will offensive rebound with anybody in the country. They'll shoot balls and just go. Defensively, it's obvious, they're as good as anybody in the country. They're as good as we are defensively. And we're walking into their court. We haven't played a road game. We're up against it. Chips are going on the other side. How do you do? Let's see what we are. Let's see what we're about. I keep telling them I'm anxious just to see how you respond.”

So far, all of UK's responses have been right on point. Louisville, however, might be more like Texas than any opponent UK has faced. The Cardinals have size. They have an All-American in Montrezl Harrell. They are more physical than Texas, and will pose more of a full-court defensive threat.

But Calipari hasn't focused on all that during his preparation. He hasn't shown his team much video of Louisville, preferring instead for his players to focus on what they need to do.

“When you have two groups (platoons) it's just different,” he said. “When you're trying to play against yourselves, you don't worry about anybody else. We know how good teams are. We're not the only good basketball team out there and sometimes you forget. We're not the only team with good players. There are a bunch of other teams, including Louisville, who have terrific players. . . . I'm worried about us. We know how good they are and we know they're going to come after us.”

Calipari sent his team home for Christmas, and his goal since its return has been to shore up some rebounding issues and to work on some offensive wrinkles.

“Defensive rebounding is our biggest issue,” he said. He wants his guards to jump in on the defensive boards. He's also used increased practice time while out of class to work on a few new offensive looks.

“Hard cuts, getting (the point guard) the ball early, sprinting the floor so we can get early baskets,” he said. “Last game we did, but we had worked on it a week.”

Of Louisville, Calipari said, “This is an outstanding team. For me it's one of those games you know you'd better be prepared walking in. Rick (Pitino) is going to have his team ready no question and you've got to have your team ready. . . . It's a great game because of how they play, how they're coached, that they've got terrific talent. Don't ever take that away from those kids. They are talented.”

Asked specifically about the Cardinals' personnel and which players were a particular concern, he added: “All of them — (Wayne) Blackshear, (Terry) Rozier. Smith (?) All of them. Listen, all of them are able to get 30 points. (Montrezl) Harrell, come on. Their big guys, they'll block shots, they've got great size. There's not a guy out there that I don't think like, ‘Well, he can't play.' They all can play. And they all can get 30. And they probably all are going to try to get 30.” 

One big difference between this Calipari-coached UK teams and others who came into the KFC Yum! Center is experience. Aaron and Andrew Harrison haven't played at Louisville but they have played against the Cardinals twice. Willie Cauley-Stein is a third-year player.

The atmosphere should not be a shock for the leadership core of UK's first platoon.

“It's our first true road game, and it's going to be in full effect,” Cauley-Stein said. “This is going to be the craziest first road game even for us. I can only imagine what it'll be like for the freshmen. Right when you walk in the gym, dudes are going to be yelling at you, cussing at you. You just have to smile like, ‘This is it. This is game time. This will be fun.' . . . Half our team hasn't experienced it, and those guys get a lot of minutes so it'll be different. We're playing a top-five team in the country. They're really good and they're going to come out real physical. The way they play is so unorthodox to what everybody else plays. It's just going to be a different scene, for one, and a different style of play.”

When Calipari said the chips were going on the other side, Las Vegas hadn't yet released a point spread. Early lines were virtually even, but UK was bet to a 4 1/2-point favorite within 90 minutes.

The Wildcats are favorites, without question. But Andrew Harrison said Calipari told the team he wanted them to have one thing in mind more than anything else: “Coach Cal is really putting the emphasis on just fighting. Not literally fighting — but being tough, boxing out, stuff like that.”

Both Calipari and the players said they wouldn't fall into the trap over overstating the importance of the game.

“I'm not making this bigger than it is because it's not our season,” Calipari said. “. . . It's winning or learning at this stage. There's no winning and losing. Winning and learning. I know our fans will be happy to hear me say that but that's how I think. They should probably start, at this point going on my sixth year, to know that I think different.”

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