As the college basketball regular season hits the crucial February stretch, Kentucky vs South Carolina has turned into one of the biggest matchups of conference play.
As these two sit in a three-way tie along with LSU, this weekend's clash in Columbia will go a long way in determining who wins the SEC. It also could go a long way in determining seeding in the SEC Tournament with both UK and USC sitting in that 4-6 seed line entering the weekend.
John Calipari knows how big of a fight his Cats have on their hands against a Gamecocks club looking to make a statement when the perennial SEC power comes to Colonial Life Arena. Cal talked about as much while also updating the status of several injured Cats during his Friday meeting with the media.
The latest injury was Jamal Murray bumping knees during Tuesday's win over Georgia. He left the game temporarily before returning, but the injury was enough to keep Murray out of practice for at least one day this week.
Here's a recap of what Cal had to say:
On South Carolina's rise
"Really guarding. Physical rebounding. Doing things a little differentâdenying in a different way. Offensively they're playing to their strengths. They're older. They've got a young point guard who's big and (P.J) Dozier doing well. The guys who can shoot are shooting. They're playing a little bit of a mush mouth game.
"Throw some 2-3 zone every now and then. Not pressing as much as they did a year ago, more halfcourt. Frank's doing a great job. What's fun to see as a coach, when you're thrust into a situation and you're building a program, he's doing it the way you do it.
"The problem with this modern era of Twitter and Facebook and social media, people think it's supposed to within half a year change. Well it doesn't. What are they, 21-3? Think about that. It makes me smile. He's a great guy. He's solid to the Earth kind of guy, but he's also a terrific coach.
"They've taken on his personality. He ain't going to bully me personally, but they take on his personality which is tough. They make faces like he does. But he's done a great job."
On UK being so different away from Rupp Arena
"I think you look around the country, everyone on the road is struggling. When you're not a dominating team, it's hard to win on the road. We've won games on the road where I was like, there's no way we're winning this game. We beat a team that's 80-5 at home. We beat them.
"This is a little different setup. I'm anxious to see how we respond. Tennessee was a quick turn and I believe the Auburn game was a quick turn. We didn't have much time and this we have a little more time. I like to see how we respond.
We don't have Alex (Poythress). Dom (Hawkins) is still probably 80 percent. Jamal (Murray) didn't practice yesterday. Bumped knees in the game so he didn't practice. This is a great test for us. They don't lose many games there and they're playing well."
On if he expects Jamal Murray to play Saturday
"I would hope so, yeah. I think he'll practice today."
On Derek Willis changing the team
"He gives you another player on the floor that will stretch the defense. He doesn't even have to make every shot, he just has to be prepared to shoot them. The biggest thing in this game is he's going to have to rebound. You have to be willing to get your nose in there and mix it up and put your body on somebody.
"If you don't put your body on somebody I can promise you they'll put their body on you. And you're at a huge disadvantage if that's what happens. They're good at it. They're good at offensive rebounding. They wedge, they tip, they're going to go after every offensive rebound.
"It's the best thing they do. I think they get 12, 14 points a game on offensive rebounds. You think about that when you're scoring 65. You're not gonna hold 'em to zero, but don't let them get 20 because then you got no chance of winning the game."
On needing energy on the road
"Well, you think about it. We've won a couple big games and we've had a 12-point lead and a 21-point lead. And then stuff gets hairy and we're still learning how to win, how to put people away, how to stop the bleeding. You don't shoot a fadeaway. You don't shoot an up and under.
"You don't take the hardest play and turn it over to give 'em another basket. You make a play that either you make more than 50 percent of the time or you're gonna get fouled. And then you have to lock down defensively if you're not making baskets, because it becomes a game of they're gonna make a run, now make another back at them, push them back. They'll make another run, then push them back again.
"Normally, the team will give up, especially when you have a 20-point lead. But we haven't - we don't have that mentality. We're beginning to get that mentality, but three weeks ago, absolutely did not. We were just playing, like, next play. Not realizing - and it's part of what we had to do as coaches is to get them to understand that."
On Gamecock big man Michael Carrera
"Well, I'll tell you what he's doing better than ever. They're going to post him up, it's going to be a tough matchup, but he's also making shots. Where in the past you could play him in a certain way that you could meet him in areas, but now he's making shots.
"And he's still the get down in a stance, he's still an offensive rebounding machine, he's still the guts of their team, the toughness of their team. He's good."
On development of Skal Labissiere and Isaac Humphries as shot blockers
"You know, the one thing that this is all done - and you feel bad for Alex - but it's given Isaac a chance to get in there and play and for us to evaluate this. Because if Alex comes back it may be between Isaac and Alex. You probably can't play them both if Alex is healthy.
"But it gives them both a chance to fight and prove they understand how to win. We're doing drills right now where they've gotta defend for a certain amount of time, and then there's eight seconds to go and I stop. I just say, OK, this is - how bad do you want to win?
"That's all this is. You scramble. Every one of you are thinking about, I am gonna make the play. Well what happens is, a guy will just give up and they grab it. I say, you don't understand. Winning and losing has no bearing on you right now. You don't understand. You accept - 'Eh, it happened.'
"So we're trying to get them to fight to win.Everybody's trying to make a play. You're not - 'I hope someone makes a play.' No, you're trying to make a play, too. That's what we're doing.
"Like yesterday's practice was two-and-a-half hours. I don't go two-and-a-half hours in the middle of February. And it was all body to body. I mean, that's what this team needs. If you remember 13-14, we were practicing almost three hours at the end of the year. We had no choice. I mean, that team just didn't get it.
"We also screwed up because they said, ‘We're going to call fouls, you can't be physical.' We played with our hands up and the teams that beat everybody up...So then we just started beating everybody up, we went back to it. So, this is a little different. Just trying to get these guys to fight and accept it and not let go of the rope.
"Look, I'm having fun with it. I'm enjoying it. I feel refreshed. I'm knowing now it's the middle of February. You know what that means? The middle of February. It's on. This is it. This is why we all coach and play. Or if you don't, you're in the wrong profession.
"This is it. Let's get this right. Gonna be a really hard game for us to win down there, and we know that. This is about our progress, and we're making progress. I told them, ‘I'm pleased, but I'm not satisfied."
On coaching this team compared to last year's team
"When I watch tape of last year's team I cannot believe I got all those guys to buy in. I can't remember what I did, but I've got to go back and think about, ‘How in the world did I get all those guys to?' Like Karl Towns, ‘You're playing 20 minutes a game.' Trey Lyles. Devin (Booker), ‘You're coming off the bench.'
"What? So, that was the amazing part of last year. Winning all the games and trying to win every single game was an exciting thing, but this is different. We have to embrace that these kids have way more to learn and we're not a dominating team. Games are going to come down to the wire.
"We're trying to still understand how this team has to play, and we're still trying to figure it out both offensively and defensively. If you've watched - and most of you don't watch, but if you watch we've like changed offense every game, how we're playing, because I'm trying to get something I'm looking at and saying, ‘OK, this is the best way.' I don't know how you prepare for us now because how we played two weeks ago is different than how we played a week ago, and last game is different."
On if constant lineup changes makes the job more fun
"No. It wakes you up early in the morning though. And it really gets you to go to bed early. Like, I'm trying to go to bed at nine, and my wife is going nuts. ‘You can't go to bed at 9 o'clock.' I said, ‘I'm going to fall asleep in this chair or that bed.' So, it tires you out, but it also wakes you up.
"We practiced yesterday and I was going back and forth with Tyler. ‘Here are some things I'm thinking about. Tell me what you think. If we do this with you and we try this stuff...' That makes it - It's not a lesson plan and I've had the same one for nine years. Every year I coach is a different team.
"And every year I coach is a different challenge. And this team, I'm proud of this team what they've been able to do. You kidding me? We had a chance to - and the staff, I'm happy with the staff, because this staff is about one thing: How do we get individual players better, how do we get them scheming offensively and defensively so that we're more productive as a team.
"And if you've watched what we've been able to do offensively and defensively, we're moving like this (hand motions, incrementally forward). Now, there's some step-backs, but they're not machines. These kids are not computers and they have bad games and you gotta accept every once in a while they throw a dud out there. It's not what I want, but it happens."
On how likely Tai Wynyard is to play this season
"You know, I don't know yet. We'll probably sit down and talk here on the way to South Carolina. I'm not sure he wants to redshirt (but) I think he does. But we haven't really talked about it. I was going to put him in the game and I kind of looked, like, ‘You don't want to go in, do you?'
"Well, so ... But he's doing fine in practice. I think he's looking at Isaac saying, ‘Right now I know I'm behind Isaac and why do it?' But there's so many things that could happen between now and the end of the year."
On perception of the SEC
"Well, if I remember right, A&M beat Iowa State and Florida beat West Virginia and we had a chance, on the road at Kansas, and that was (the Big 12's) better teams. And didn't somebody play Oklahoma to a good game? LSU, I think, had a chance to beat them.
"So ... but we, on the other side of this, we've lost some non-conference games that hurt our league - we did - and we do it every year. At some point, we're not and then this league's going to go to one, two or three.
"But those non-conference losses, if you give them a chance to go back to those - even our own people that follow us will go back to that: ‘Well, they lost to Samford and Samford lost to Hawaii and Hawaii lost to Asheville, so you should be with Asheville.' They do that stuff. So sometimes it's self-inflicted.
"But we've got good coaches, we've got good teams, we're beating each other up. It should not hurt our league. It should help our league. I think we've got 5-6 teams that'll be in the tournament. Now the question is: Where do we get seeded? Like, where do those five get seeded?
"And it's not done. I mean, Texas A&M's gone on a little wrong-way run here. That could be us because of our schedule. Our schedule is top-heavy at the end. We have - how many games we have left? (Seven) Five of them are, like, four of them on the road and a home game that could be a loss.
"We already lost to one of them - no, we lost to two of the teams that are coming to us now. So, I mean, you gotta finish, gotta play, gotta get the best seeds. I think in the NCAA Tournament our teams have done well. It's all part of the process."