The No. 22 Kentucky Wildcats (19-7, 7-5) emphatically took care of their home court business on Saturday with a resounding 90-59 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks (13-12, 4-8), sending Darrin Horn's team to its fifth straight loss. The 'Cats, who controlled the game from the beginning with a defensively devastating 15-0 run, finally showed why so many Kentucky fans are holding out hope. Hope for a strong SEC finish, and hope for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
That all-important Cat-fan hope was bolstered Saturday afternoon by a seemingly tireless UK team putting their collective boot on the throat of the Gamecocks, and never letting up the pressure until the final gasp for air had left the opponent's lungs. And unlike the earlier Wildcat victory over Carolina in Columbia when the 'Cats nearly blew an 18-point second half lead, this day the 'Cats were focused and unrelenting. Two winning characteristics this young team must hold dear if they are to fulfill the promise of the preseason.
The terrific turnaround in the Wildcats' intensity, energy, and focus can be traced back to a coaching ploy by John Calipari, who learned that sometimes it's the most elementary of admonitions that render the best results. Cal first mentioned earlier in the week, almost in passing, his desire for his squad to ignore the scoreboard while playing. The reason for the figurative darkening of the scoreboard was to get his team to execute, regardless of time and score; something this club has struggled with all year.
With the home stretch of the season quickly approaching, Calipari knows his team must make an attitude adjustment in how they think, which (ideally) leads to an adjustment in how they perform. Cal's lesson plan -- Play the same way (with great energy), and execute the same way, whether the 'Cats are up big, down big, or in a tight game. As if to over-emphasize his teaching points, no fewer than half-a-dozen times in his post game press conference on Saturday, Calipari brought up the need for his team to pay no mind to the Rupp Arena scoreboard. It began like this:
"And I'm just, like, again, I was on these guys hard because I don't, I don't want them looking at the score. Whether we're up, whether it is close; just play and execute. And so we got up, and they started getting sloppy. I said I'm not looking at the score. I'm looking at how we're playing."
"We made some decisions. You may say, you are going nuts and you are up 25. Yeah, because we were up 17, 18 and all of a sudden turned around and it was five. We've done that a couple times (this year). So I'm trying to get them to forget about the score. Let's worry about execution. I don't want them to play not to lose. You have to just play to win and you've got to execute."
With the 'Cats struggling all year to play a full 40 minutes -- not an unusual circumstance with such a young team -- and the resulting closer-than-necessary games, as well as a few ugly, avoidable losses dotting their resume,' Calipari knows his team cannot continue to play like freshmen. They must now begin to play like Kentucky. And Kentucky basketball is all about playing with intensity and passion, clowning the opponents when they are "clownable," and grinding out wins when necessary, and most importantly, executing for the entire game.
"And if we know it is a big score, you don't have to look up and know it. You know you are up big. Then you play to either get a lay‑up or something easy ... And if you are down 10, nine, eight, you know you have got to speed up play. And if it is a close game, we grind it out. Let's grind it and make sure we get good shots. In this game, I think it was eight, nine, 10 minutes to go, I started telling them, 'We are grinding it down like it is a close game.' And we got it into Terrence (Jones), and one. We hit a jumper. We did some really good stuff. Really proud of them."
Proud he might be, but there were a couple of teachable moments evidenced by Calipari's thoughts on Doron Lamb's propensity to play less than all-out when UK has a nice lead, and Darius Miller's occasional lapses into "soft" play.
"A couple of times I got on him (Lamb). When we got up 20 he wanted to revert back. He wanted to jog that court. And I was all over him. He was looking at me like, 'We're up 25.' Yeah, we were up 18 at South Carolina and it became a five-point game. We were up 18 against Mississippi State in the second half late, and all of the sudden it is a five-point or four-point game. I'm just letting them know we've got to get better."
Cal referring to Darius Miller:
"I said, why would you do that? You just played one of your better games since I've been your coach. But then you hit a two-minute spurt, where you just, you know, go soft again, get pushed out of the way. Why? You had nine rebounds. You played above the rim. You were strong with the ball.' But again, I wasn't looking at the score. It was how they were playing. And if a guy broke down on a pick-and-roll, I was mad. If a guy didn't go grab a rebound with two hands, I was mad. I don't care if it was 50-20."
Spoken like a coach after the hearts of the Big Blue Nation, and after the minds of his youthful, inexperienced charges.
With the most important part of the schedule awaiting the 'Cats, Calipari knows there is no time like the present to intensify his club's focus on executing (regardless of time and score) and playing with great energy, because in tourney play, winning and advancing is all about out-executing the opponent.
With the inevitable tight games awaiting the 'Cats on the horizon, how effectively this team (with energy) defends the paint, defends the pick-and-roll, and defends the perimeter, will determine how indelible a mark the 'Cats leave on the participants of the Big Dance. Offensively, how cleanly the 'Cats execute their half court sets will likely define how happy UK fans are at seasons end.
We know UK can run the floor with the best teams in the country, but this Wildcat squad, saddled with a painfully short bench, must rely on pin point execution in all phases of the game -- especially the half court -- to ultimately be successful. After all, UK's margin for error is super model thin, this we know.
Calipari, rather simply, put it like this when referring to the need for his team to continue to grow:
"You want them to perform for 40 minutes. Why? Because the next game is going to be harder. The next game is even going to be harder. The next game is going to be ridiculous. And the last game is going to be like wow. We just have to get better."
And getting better, begins again, on the road. This time at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas on Wednesday night. And if the 'Cats play with energy, and focus, they will happily let the ignored scoreboard tell the winning story.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!