CRAWFORD | Calipari not worried, but Kentucky needs to elevate a - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Calipari not worried, but Kentucky needs to elevate after 75-70 loss to Auburn

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Auburn students storm the court in Auburn Arena after the Tigers upset Kentucky. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Auburn students storm the court in Auburn Arena after the Tigers upset Kentucky. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

AUBURN, Ala. (WDRB) — It’s been a while since the University of Kentucky suffered a basketball loss like this one.

In terms of history, the Wildcats hadn’t lost to Auburn since 2000, a span of 18 straight games, with wins in 32 of the past 33 meetings of the programs.

But this is more illustrative. In terms of Ken Pomeroy’s computer ratings — some of the most-respected in the game — Saturday’s 75-70 loss to No. 177 Auburn was the worst of the John Calipari era, the worst since the last home-court loss of Billy Gillispie, to Georgia in March of 2009, and third-worst in the 15-year history of the rankings.

So, yeah, it was a clunker.

But if you expect Calipari to panic or mirror at all the kind of call-in-show clamor that ensued, forget it.

“What’s the date today?” he asked. It’s Jan. 16. “We’re fine. I’m not worried about it. I just want to make some changes to see if guys will respond, like, and fight.”

That “fight” question still looms over the Wildcats. Calipari noted Saturday that the officiating emphases of cleaning up play and calling games tightly has vanished, seemingly overnight. He’s not the first. His colleague across the state noted that last week, and around the nation coaches have said the same.

So Calipari says he’ll prepare his team for it. He’ll break out the pads and football helmets. He’ll push his team to play more physically.

“Just forget about worrying about fouls,” Calipari said. “Just get up and play.”

But there’s another aspect to this fight thing. A day before the game Auburn’s Cinmeon Bowers said he expected the Tigers to beat Kentucky, that the Wildcats weren’t as fearsome as they were a year ago on the interior and that Auburn had better guards.

Moreover, the Tigers were yapping at Kentucky before the game.

“They were talking all this stuff and getting hyped up and came with nothing to lose,” Kentucky’s Derek Willis said.

Calipari noticed. And he remembered back to last season’s NCAA Tournament, when West Virginia talked trash about Kentucky before their NCAA Tournament meeting, and the Wildcats won 78-39.

“It’s just disappointing when stuff is being said like last year, we beat West Virginia by a hundred,” Calipari said. “This year, you know, like, where’s the fight in this? So that was disappointing.”

But it’s not just fight that’s missing. A year ago, Kentucky had Karl-Anthony Towns, the best low-post scorer in the country. It had depth to burn. It had size at all five positions.

This year, it does not have depth. It does not have overwhelming size. It does not have a high-percentage scorer in key situations.

A year ago, it used Dakari Johnson just to give guys a rest. Put Johnson on this team and it would solve a world of problems.

But Calipari doesn’t have Johnson. And he does have a problem.

“They don’t have, right now, against some defenses, a go-to inside presence,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “. . . They’ve become a brilliant ball-screen team, and do phenomenal work out of the ball screens. We happen to defend ball-screens well, because we run a lot of ball-screen offense ourselves, so we work hard on defending it. So tonight, from the standpoint of the matchup, was a matchup that played to some of our strengths. But Kentucky, you’ve got to keep in mind, has so many young players. They’re going to compete for our league championship, without question. They played awfully hard, but our play was elevated.”

Kareem Canty scored 26 points for Auburn, which made 12 of 26 three-pointers but just 9 of 29 twos. 

Two good things for Kentucky:

1. If every player cared as much as Tyler Ulis, Kentucky would have no problem. Ulis was so disgusted and angry after the game he could barely speak with reporters. His voice quivered. He finished the game two assists short of a triple double. He had 17 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists. He did it all. And he never left the court. And Calipari says that should change.

“He’s a competitor,” Calipari said. “I probably needed to get him out a little bit.”

2. Derek Willis earned more playing time. He finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds. He was active on defense. He worked hard on the boards. And his presence stretches defenses to open more driving lanes for the guards.

“I’m really happy for him,” Calipari said. “He rebounded with two hands, and if you ask me, he moved by all the other bigs. That’s my opinion. But now he’s got to be consistent with it. I’m just proud of him. . . . There’s an opportunity right now, because some guys are not stepping up.”

There’s opportunity for everybody. UK led this game by 12 less than five minutes into the second half. From that point out, it was outscored by 17 by an Auburn team that is injured and struggling.

But Auburn found a way to rally — in part because it saw the blue uniforms of Kentucky and took it as a rallying cry to elevate itself. Pearl thought about that as he watched Auburn students storm the court.

“John understands,” Pearl said. “He’s going to go in the locker room and say, ‘I told you. I told you you’d get a different team from what you’ve seen on tape. I told you they were going to be excited and the crowd is going to be there.’ And this is going to be another good learning lesson. Look, Kentucky played hard, they competed, but what the home crowd does to some teams on some nights, it elevates you. And our play was elevated tonight. I think a lot of our guys tonight played for the name on the front of their jerseys. . . . Understand the respect we have for that name on that blue jersey. That’s what brought out Kareem Canty. He grew up in Harlem, but he grew up knowing what Kentucky basketball is. Whether he grew up wanting to play there, it wasn’t for him. He wasn’t good enough to play there. But he was good enough to play against them, and it just elevated him.”

Now, Calipari needs some of that same stirring in the face of Kentucky’s tradition to elevate his own guys. Because this team, if this loss showed nothing else, is going to have to elevate if it wants to reach its lofty goals.

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