CRAWFORD | Kentucky 'reboot' hangs, but Wildcats still beat LSU 92-85
For 30 minutes, coach John Calipari's "reboot" of his Kentucky basketball team hummed along nicely, then some old problems emerged late as the Wildcats held on for an eight-point win over LSU.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- As reboots go, the one that University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari unveiled Tuesday night in Rupp Arena was more of a soft reboot.
He got things restarted for his Wildcats after their 22-point loss at Florida on Saturday, and they hummed along well for 30 minutes, but some unwanted data still remained.
In fact, after the Wildcats were outscored 58-49 in the second half of a 92-85 win over an LSU team that had lost seven straight coming in, Calipari was ready to hit Control-Alt-Delete and start over -- immediately.
"If I could practice tonight, we would have gone three hours," Calipari told reporters after the game. "I would have had them meet me at the gym at 10 o'clock, and I would have gone three hours till 1 in the morning, till people were puking. That's what I would've done. That's the old days. You can't do that. But we will practice three hours tomorrow. And I told them if anybody says they can't go, you won't make the trip to Alabama. . . . And we're going to get after this and continue to build what you saw for three-quarters of the game."
With eight minutes to play, Kentucky led by 25, 81-56. That's in keeping with what everyone -- including Las Vegas oddsmakers -- expected to see.
I'm not saying anything that Kentucky fans -- and Calipari himself -- don't already know.
This is not a good LSU team. The Tigers lost by 35 to Wichita State on a neutral court. They lost by 36 at home to Florida. Wake Forest beat them by 34, Mississippi State by 30 and South Carolina by 23.
LSU now has 10 league losses. This one tied for the second-closest. The Tigers shot 62.5 percent in the second half and 50 percent for the game, aided by 11 layups and two dunks (out of 23 layup and dunk attempts). Their 58 second-half points were the most in a game this season, eclipsing the 53 they scored in their lone SEC win, over Missouri.
You know it's rough when you win and still drop five spots -- to No. 12 -- in the Ratings Percentage Index, and give up one spot in Ken Pomeroy's ratings.
On the defensive issues, point blank, Calipari said they are going to begin to affect playing time.
"On the defensive problems, some of these guys either need to step on the gas or step back," he said. "I'm not being mean, I'm just being real. Either you step on the gas, or you've got to step back. I don't want to shorten the rotation to five or six guys, but I will if I have to. I'd like to play eight or nine guys . . . but you better deserve to be on that court. We're down to that time of the season."
So that's the bad. Calipari also talked about the good. For 30 minutes, his team played the way he wanted it to play, at least on offense. The ball moved. Wenyen Gabriel had a career-high 16 points. But Calipari gave the credit to Isaiah Briscoe, who focused on setting up teammates until late in the game.
De'Aaron Fox finished with 16 points. Malik Monk had 23. And that's nice, but the guy he was guarding, LSU guard Antonio Blakeney, finished with 31.
Still, Calipari saw enough good signs early to keep from being discouraged.
"We've got some stuff to do," he said. "But I'm going to say it now, I know now, I'm comfortable we're on the right path. I'm disappointed in the last eight minutes. . . . Eight minutes to go, I don't know whether we were tired or we reverted back."
I'm not going to dismiss this Kentucky team for the simple reason that we all know how March works. It's about talent, and it's about matchups. We all watched Kentucky fool around all season in 2014, then come alive in the tournament. Down went Wichita State, then Louisville, then Michigan, then Wisconsin. That team had beaten maybe three ranked teams all season.
Same in 2011. They were 7-6 in the SEC starting the final week of February. Didn't lose again till the Final Four, went through the bracket of death, West Virginia, Ohio State, North Carolina.
This Kentucky team is more talented than both of those. As far as I'm concerned, the rest of the regular season and the SEC Tournament are practice. Only one of those games will be against a nationally ranked team. None of the others are against teams projected in the NCAA field by ESPN's Joe Lunardi. They aren't bad teams, and will provide solid opposition. But they're not the kind of teams Kentucky is likely to see in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The goal, then, is improvement. It's team play. Players First is fine for recruiting, but part of that is learning to play as a team, learning to play a role.
The Calipari you heard after the LSU game wasn't Cheerleader Cal. It was old-school Cal. It was "it's time to stop fooling around" Cal.
Calipari knows what he saw Tuesday night -- both good and bad. But he also feels like he has a handle on how to see more of the former and less of the latter moving forward.
Even if he has to press the reboot a few more times to get it.
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