CRAWFORD | No fan of conference tourneys, Kentucky's Calipari we - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | No fan of conference tourneys, Kentucky's Calipari welcomes this year's SEC experience

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WDRB) -- If there were a Super PAC to fight the existence of conference basketball tournaments, Kentucky coach John Calipari probably would be the lead donor, and maybe its chief lobbyist.

He’s made no secret over the years that they aren’t his favorite things. He even wrote as much in his most recent book, Success Is The Only Option.

If you gave him the option of skipping the conference tournament, he’d usually be happy to sign up. Most years, they’re little more than a nuisance. His teams, normally, are highly ranked and purring along at the end of the regular season. They need another three games in three days like they need another five-star recruit. Which is to say, they don’t need them.

But this season might be a little different.

Yes, the Wildcats have won eight in a row heading into their SEC Tournament opener at 1 p.m. Friday against Georgia. But those outcomes tend to obscure the struggles.

They’ve opened their past three games with deficits of 12, 19 and 14 points. In that stretch, they beat LSU (ranked No. 173 by Ken Pomeroy) by only seven, and had to pull away late to beat No. 156 Missouri by 10.

More than that, Calipari just hasn't liked the feel of those wins, though he does believe his team is improving.

So this year, Calipari may actually find the conference tournament experience useful, as he continues to tinker.

“I'm just emphasizing some different things in this postseason, what we want to look like,” Calipari said Thursday, standing outside of the Belmont University gym where his team went through a brief practice. “I always come back to this tournament is our way of getting ready. And every one of these teams is capable of beating us, and we know that. This is about are we getting in a frame of mind of how you're going to have to play?”

That “how” has changed as the season has progressed.

Early in the season, Kentucky played its preferred style. It got on the gas from the opening tip, and overwhelmed opponents with its ability to score in various and dazzling ways in transition.

Until the third week of January, the only teams that were able to slow down the Wildcats were Michigan State -- which held them to 69 points but still lost by 21 -- and Louisville, which beat them 73-70. Other than that, they were like Miami in the summertime -- never dropping below 85.

Then Tennessee beat them 82-80. And Kansas held them to 73 in a win in Rupp Arena. And Florida held them to 66 in a rout in Gainesville. Since a 92-85 win over LSU, Kentucky hasn’t reached the 85-point mark once in its past seven games.

Part of that is by design. Calipari wanted the Wildcats being a bit more disciplined, a bit more efficient offensively, and looking to pound the ball inside to Bam Adebayo more.

But now that the postseason is here, he’s hoping to take the best of his team’s open-court artistry combined with the discipline it has shown during its eight-game winning streak to end the season.

He stepped back and looked at the big picture when he had some time to himself last Sunday, and has a few other tweaks for the SEC Tournament. He knows what he wants this team to look like. He just hasn’t seen it yet on the court.

Before practice on Thursday, he didn’t show his team any video of Georgia. He showed his players video of themselves, when they were playing the way he wanted.

“There were some clips in some games that we really got some great movement and attacked the basket and got to the rim, and I just wanted them to see that,” Calipari said.

What did Calipari see in those clips?

“You see a cohesive team that's patient yet attacking, that's aggressive yet not on their heels waiting, they're trying to make things happen,” he said. “That's who we should be. And the only way you get that is your team plays with high energy, and that means individuals.”

Calipari went out of his way to mention Dominique Hawkins three times on Thursday as an individual that brings energy to the Wildcats’ attack. Hawkins was the hero of Kentucky’s 90-81 overtime win over Georgia on Jan. 31.

The Bulldogs know how to play Kentucky, and they play a style that the Wildcats don’t particularly like. They’re a grind-it-out team. They’re athletic enough to play good man-to-man but they play a matchup zone that can cause problems.

Their point guard, J.J. Frazier, has had two outstanding games against Kentucky, with 23 points at Rupp Arena and 36 in Athens, an eight-point Kentucky victory that was made a bit easier by an in-game injury to Georgia’s talented Yante Maten. The 6-8, 240-pound junior was in the lineup for Georgia’s tournament-opening win over Tennessee on Thursday and will play against the Wildcats.

“Look, Georgia had us both games,” Calipari said. “When I watched the tape, I didn't realize it was like that. Because you have a vision that we won by eight. What? We were down with 50 seconds to go. I mean, so, I know how good they are. I know how well-coached they are.”

What Calipari doesn’t know is how long it will take his team to get where he wants it. He knows the individuals are improving. But time is growing short for the team itself to show what he wants. It’s a challenge with the way Kentucky does things right now. You get a lot of talent, but the clock is always ticking.

“When I look at them, every one of them has improved,” Calipari said. “Now, are we ready to just swarm and scramble and play with great energy and pass the ball and fly up and down the court? I'd rather have a team that doesn't run a whole lot of plays. Just go. Move the ball, create good shots for each other, if it's a dead ball and you have to, OK we'll run something. But every year, you're looking, you want to be your best all season at this time. And this team is starting to get there. Are they where they need to be? I probably would say I never would be satisfied.”

But at least for this season -- having a few games in the conference tournament can’t hurt.

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