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Kentucky Basketball: Cal Treads Carefully, Even up by 19

This team is a fragile box of china dishes, so this year the coach needs a steady grip

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

It's not my biggest complaint about TV coverage of sports - and I want to write a whole blog about it one day soon - but I was bemused by ESPN's Brad Nessler and Sean Farnham after Cal's walk-off halftime interview during the Georgia game.

Leading 42-23, he backed up the truck on the poor interviewer with detailed complaints about something Skal did or didn't do and a couple of other things, closing out by declaring that "we still have work to do" before heading to the locker room.

It's an old Calipari act and I'm a little surprised at the Nessler-Farnham reaction, essentially: "He's leading by 19 points. Was he watching the same game we were watching?" As if they were seeing it for the first time.

If they're truly hired to bring basketball expertise and analysis to the job, and not just spend the time talking about golf games and meals they've had (I said I wasn't going to get into that here), they'd know that [a] Cal never stops coaching and critiquing, even if his team is in the midst of a 38-game winning streak; and [b] this team is not in the midst of a 38-game winning streak. It's not even always in the midst of a two-game "playing pretty well" streak.

So unless that halftime interview was just a pro forma thing to do, and nobody really cares who says what, they're revealing the ignorance too many broadcasters seem to bring to these games. Or maybe just lack of homework.

The fact is, everything Cal recited on his way to the halftime break is a recurring theme for this Kentucky team. Skal too often doesn't control rebounds. Marcus Lee too often commits too many fouls too easily. Sometimes the defensive intensity slackens off.

Cal is always coaching with March in mind. There are always problems to be addressed and corrected. And this team is not a self-winding watch. If he's not holding a mirror up to their faces all the time, they may get lazy or lapse into old habits or believe what that lying scoreboard is telling them. (Who are you going to believe, me or the score?)

I know, Cal can be a drama queen who loves a microphone at his mouth and a national TV camera in his face, who delights in saying the unexpected. So last year, when he might have cited a defensive assignment Karl-Anthony Towns did not pick up, he might have earned the criticism of crying hunger with a loaf of bread under each arm.

But Karl-Anthony Towns is in Minneapolis these days, and nobody currently in Lexington is exercising his will in the paint. Those of us who study Kentucky basketball with the intensity of Medieval monks debating the doctrine of the Trinity know that the job ahead for Calipari requires carrying a stack of expensive chinaware without breaking anything. In other words, very delicately because the consequences could be costly. Try . . . not . . . to . . . trip . . .

His frenetic substituting is more than just punishing someone for not fighting through a screen or taking a bad shot or letting a set play unravel. He's constantly in search of the right combinations. Sometimes Charles Matthews is just the right ingredient. Lately, Isaac Humphries has come in and provided a jolt. Sometimes, Skal can provide the necessary two-point basket and "take-that!" shot block.

And sometimes, none of that works, and the court time goes instead to Dominique Hawkins or Mychal Mulder. I don't remember a Calipari team at Kentucky that was this unsettled this late in the season. Of course, Alex Poythress' damaged other knee doesn't help, and nobody is saying what that damage is or how long it will be a problem.

Also, why was Derek Willis lying prone during his times off the court? Is there a back problem brewing? Is that another china plate to be wrapped in bubbles?

All this Calipari must monitor while deciding whether to put Humphries in, or Skal, or try Marcus Lee one more time, or go with five guards. Or when he needs some Dominique Hawkins steadiness versus Charles Matthews fireworks. Or when Isaiah Briscoe's mad dashes along the baseline are the perfect components to the Ulis-Murray offensive arsenal versus just bad, counter-productive basketball.

Or when he can afford to give Tyler Ulis just the tiniest breather on the bench, even with a 19-point first half lead.

That's when Cal's earning his money, even if the guys on ESPN are not earning theirs.