CRAWFORD | Calipari says 'I've failed them' after Kentucky loses fourth straight
John Calipari says his players aren't listening right now, but blames himself after losing 76-66 at Auburn, Kentucky's fourth straight loss.
AUBURN, Ala. (WDRB) – University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari noted, after his team’s fourth consecutive loss Wednesday night, 76-66 at No. 8 Auburn, that he hasn’t been in this situation too often lately.
“The good news is I’ve done this for 30 years, haven’t had one of these for a while,” Calipari said after the game. “It’s probably good for the soul. I wish it were good for someone else’s soul, and not mine.”
Nor do I think it will be particularly good news around the Bluegrass state this morning. Calipari is right. He hasn’t been in this position since 2005, when his Memphis team lost four straight games leading up to a Conference USA Tournament in which it would lose in the championship on a couple of Darius Washington missed free throws with time expired.
Since then, it’s been overwhelmingly good for Calipari, particularly at Kentucky, where his Wildcats had lost only seven conference games in the past three seasons. Now, they’ve lost seven conference games in the past five weeks.
When asked, after four straight losses, if he is worried about the team’s NCAA Tournament fate, Calipari answered: “I’ve got one thought. Let’s try to win the next game. Just win a game. I really believe if we win a game, we’ll get going.”
What happened to Kentucky at Auburn is not surprising. It followed a somewhat predictable template. The Wildcats played back and forth with Auburn, made some plays to put a head in front with a four-point lead at the seven-minute mark, then did not make a field goal in the game’s final 5:01.
The last jump shot Kentucky made in the game came with 10:51 left. The Wildcats made just 3 of their final 12 shots, after going 9-for-14 in the half (64.2) percent to that point.
“You’ve got to make some shots,” Calipari said. “This is the game of basketball. When you’re wide open, if you don’t think you can make a three, make a two.”
That’s simple enough, but it isn’t the whole story. That Kentucky now stands at 17-9 – the fifth time in Calipari’s nine seasons that the Wildcats have lost at least nine games – isn’t all that surprising in the context of this season. But considering this is not a depleted team at the moment, that it consists of five McDonald’s All-Americans, that there’s no obvious excuse other than youth, is a little surprising.
Now, it is the youngest team in college basketball, and some around the program argue that it is perhaps the youngest in the history of college basketball. But you know who else is young? Auburn. The Tigers have just nine scholarship players, and none of them are seniors. They’re the third-youngest team in the SEC, winning essentially behind three juniors, three sophomores and a freshman.
Kentucky doesn’t even have the juniors. It has seven freshmen and two sophomores. But that’s how Calipari has chosen to do it. The roster has not been back-built. Guys like Charles Matthews see themselves being recruited over and head out.
So now Calipari finds himself in the difficult position of trying to hold together a team that not only is frustrated, but inexperienced.
“We came into the game – guard the three, and we’re not fouling,” Calipari said. “(In the first half), they had 31 points out of their 39 on three pointers and at the line. Is anybody listening to me on this? . . . My concern is I’ve got a bunch of young kids that at times they don’t listen, they don’t trust. I told them last night, I’ve failed them. I haven’t built enough trust where when I talk to them, I’m going to do what this man says. They’re not there. I don’t know if it’s outside stuff. But I told them, I’ve failed them. But they’ve also failed each other, because they don’t play for each other.”
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl put it a bit more diplomatically when asked for his assessment of Kentucky. He still thinks the Wildcats can make a run. He expressed some surprise that his team beat Kentucky by 10, given that UK caused his team some problems with its defense and beat the Tigers on the boards and in the paint.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Pearl said. “(Shai-Gilgeous) Alexander is as good on the ball screen as there is, and we do a good job defending their ball screen. They stopped running ball screens for him because we kept turning him over. But he’s terrific. Their biggest weakness is they don’t shoot the three ball as well. And they’re limited in their playmakers in the number of guys who can make plays for others. But they’re an NCAA Tournament team and definitely a team that can advance.”
When asked if he’s worried that the losing streak might hurt Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament chances, Calipari didn’t bite. But he also acknowledged, an improved SEC means that his team is going to have to fight its way out of this slump, which hasn't always been the case in the past.
“I’ve had teams in this kind of mode that we’re in," he said. "But the league was different, that we could go get a league game somewhere and we knew, ‘OK, finally.’ Well guess what? There are none here (in the SEC). You better go and play.”
Prior to Wednesday, Calipari’s biggest goal was just to get his team to play hard and compete. On Wednesday, it did that, for the most part, and still lost, to a good team.
Few coaches are better than Calipari at pressing the right buttons down the stretch. But with this team, the buttons are different. And his time for pressing the right combination is dwindling. He said on Wednesday that he still believes he has a team that can get to the Final Four, "But everybody's got to play for us."
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