Life somehow keeps becoming more difficult for head coach John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats. Their latest struggles came on Tuesday at home, as they fell 81-80 at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Kentucky’s Davion Mintz swished a jumper with :14 left, just to see Jacob Toppin be called for a questionable foul with :04 remaining and put Arkansas at the line. The Razorbacks of course made both and capitalized on a bizarre turnover from Olivier Sarr to seal the Wildcats’ fate.
Calipari’s squad just can’t get anything to go their way. They finally shot the ball decently well on Tuesday (54% from three), but only connected on 64% of their free throws and coughed it up 11 times to the Razorbacks’ six. Sometimes this season it’s been the simplest of errors holding the Wildcats back from a victory, with that being on full display yet again Tuesday night.
Even if they win out, Kentucky (5-13) has sealed their fate of having a losing season. While a pandemic can certainly shake things up for even the best programs (see Duke, UCLA & UNC), a losing season is unacceptable for Kentucky’s standards. Regardless of how the final six games play out, there will be plenty of expectations for Kentucky to bounce back in the fall.
For now, here’s what Calipari and his Wildcats had to say following their latest loss.
Q: What were you trying to do on the final play there?
What do you mean? On the final play?
Q; Yeah, when there was 4.3 seconds left and you were bringing the ball up and turned it over.
You mean the one where Olivier (Sarr) had it?
Yeah, that ball was supposed to go to Olivier and then one of the guards and then we kind of didn’t get quite open. But, we were also going to look at BJ (Brandon Boston Jr.), who was open, and we passed him up, if you know what I’m saying. If you look at it, it was supposed to go to either BJ. If he’s open, throw it. He was open. We didn’t, which is OK. We threw it to Olivier. Olivier is catching it and throwing it to somebody and we’ve got our best 3-point shooters out on the corners and the wings. So, that’s what we were trying to do.
Let me just say this, guys. This team, that’s the best we’ve finished a game. So I’m like, I can’t be that upset. There were things that happened. I’ve got to go back and look at the last call, I mean, was it a jump ball? Was there body contact? Because this game was physical. To give up two free throws to win the game, I don’t know. We’ll see it when I watch the tape.
But this team fought. You know, B.J. (Boston) played better. We took open shots. We didn’t make them all but we took open shots. We flew it up the court. We posted it. We added a little wrinkle or two today — for today. We did some things defensively different. We’re just trying to see if we can bring some aggressiveness out now.
I was going crazy in this game. I was not going to let them hang their head. I had to tell them, we’re down four baskets. There’s five minutes to go. They look like the world ended. What? And so this was a breakthrough that way. Am I happy we lost? No. I want to watch the end of the game and make sure I know exactly what happened. But the plays and the execution that we had, flawless.
Q. I know you don’t like to run plays specifically to set up threes, but Olivier has shown such an attitude for that recently, is that an option to get some more offense going to have him do what you were doing in the second half more often?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Well, you don’t want him to take — well, how many you want him to take?
Q. He’s 8-for-15 on the season.
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I’m asking. Do you want him to take ten a game?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: How many did he take today?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: All right. So maybe he takes one or two more. I mean, yes, but he’s also pretty good when he squares up shot. He can do both. He can do both. He’s — I’ve been saying all along, you saw Davion make some shots, Devin made some shots, B.J. made some shots, Olivier made shots and I keep saying, most of this is mental for these kids. It’s hard. It’s hard. How we started this season and what the gauntlet was I threw at them, it was hard mentally. This has been hard. So they — let’s just hope this was a little bit of a breakthrough.
Q. You’ve spoken to a little bit, but not just in this game, at 5-13 now, you have a bunch of guys who have had a lot of opportunity to kind of just punt, you know, to just lay down a season and for all the agonizing losses, doesn’t seem like you have any guys, or many guys, who have done that. How significant is it to you —
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Well, we don’t — we don’t have anybody — we don’t have anybody (who has done that).
And Kyle (Tucker), I want to say this, and I need everybody to listen and our fans to listen: the medical people, I’m not going to be specific of what’s wrong, but he (Terrence Clarke) has an injury that he cannot play. So everybody on this team, he cried. I cried. Because he’s out another four weeks.
So it’s not like anybody doesn’t want to play. He was supposed to be our best player. We haven’t had him, and now, you look at this team, I’m proud that they are fighting. We still make mistakes and we do some stuff.
But here’s the biggest thing I said to them prior to the game the last two days. If you’re not in and looking like this and you look like that, the game is really hard and you’re out there about by yourself. If you’re like this, the game is a little easier because you have a bunch of guys looking after you.
There was one point in the first half where we didn’t pass the ball and you probably heard me, I as was yelling, loud, “Just pass it to somebody! Pass it! Pass!” We stopped. Well, second half we went back to moving the ball. Pass the ball. Get it to the next guy. Throw it to a guy who is open. How about this? Create a good shot for your teammate. We did a bunch of that today.
Guys, this has been one of those — I told them today, they worked hard enough and had enough bad things happen to them. They deserve something good to happen. But no one is giving it to you. You’ve got to take it. We got closer today to taking it.
Q. It seems like on most of the losses this year, in the second half, the team has lost focus, had a lot of turnovers. What was the difference tonight? It seemed like they were a lot more focused and had a lot of fight in them.
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Because they were playing together. So instead of each guy worrying about how I play, I played so bad, I cannot be engaged with this team. And that’s what we do, and then it leads to turnovers. I’ve got to get a basket because I’m 1-for-7, so I’ve got to get a basket. So you take a bad shot, you throw a crazy pass or you try to hit a home run because you’re playing poorly.
Today they were a team trying to create shots and execution for each other so that we can win. You know, again, we had some breakdowns defensively. We were — there were some guys that, you know, the game plan was we broke it off a couple times and they made us pay with layups. And so you know, but the reality of it is guys who are in there fighting, battling, you know, did some good stuff.
But look, this game of basketball, the key is, when I’m not playing well, how do I help the team win. If you want to be a really good player. Or when I’m not playing well, I don’t care if we win or lose or what happens. You can’t be that guy.
And what I’m continuing to say, we’re looking for singles and bunts. I don’t need home runs. We’re not capable of hitting home runs. So let’s not. Let’s just do all the bunts and great screens and execution and everybody do their thing together. Like I said after the game, hard for me to be mad. I wanted to win the game. I’ll look at the stuff down the stretch to see how I feel.
But the reality of it is the team fought and they executed and they threw daggers today. Finally, guys threw daggers.
Q. It was just a couple weeks ago that you said the team was listening but they weren’t hearing. And now the things that you’ve been emphasizing, the turnovers, getting out on the break, it seems like they are really hearing for the first time. What do you attribute that to, and does that give you encouragement for the rest of the year?
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I think, again, you know, this is us — we’re still trying to figure out different things with this team. You probably didn’t know but I changed some stuff up today on how we had spacing on the court, what I did defensively on the halfcourt, you probably didn’t notice, but we are trying different things to see what works for this group.
And I’m not going to stop. I’m coaching. I’m fighting. I’m battling. I’m playing every game. We’ve got one game Saturday. I’m not worried about anything else. We’ve got a game Saturday.
So my day will be spent watching this, learning from the tape. It’s done. Let’s get on with the next game. I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t even know who we’re playing. I know we’ve got a game Saturday.
Q. I know you mentioned you wanted to go back and look at that last foul that was called, but earlier in the game, you had a long talk with officials. Isaiah (Jackson) gets a tech and has to leave — what can you say about the guys being frustrated —
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: I just told Isaiah, “Isaiah, if you miss a call, you’ve just got to let it go.” You can’t get technical in a game like this. And they keep the ball and all of a sudden the stuff changed on us.
Now from that point, we had our chances and got the one-point lead but we don’t want it. It’s the same, again, you know, you look at — in a game for us in our team, there are game-ending calls that we’ve seen. At Auburn, it’s a game-ending call. Not a jump ball. It’s a foul. Now those game — they are done. The game ends. That was a game-ending call. I’ve got to watch the tape. I don’t know. You guys could tell me. You probably saw it. If it was a foul, it was the right call. If it wasn’t a foul, it was the wrong call.
Q. I guess looking back, it’s kind of a minor thing in some ways, but toward the end when I saw your team huddle up on the court, Devin (Askew) got in and looked like he took charge and almost barking at the guys. Is that a step forward for him? First time I can remember somebody doing that.
COACH JOHN CALIPARI: Yeah, and we’ve been talking about that. We’ve been talking about it. You guys don’t even huddle. You’re so disappointed in how you are playing, you can’t even huddle and talk at each other.
Again, we’ve got inexperienced guys who have only played for themselves. I’ve had it before but I’ve had the summer and the fall. And they figure out at some point in the year, we need each other, so I’ve got to stop this, or you’re not going to play. I’m not going to put you in the game.
And so now they are starting to huddle. They are starting to talk. I mean, how about how we had to finish the half. How about the stuff we’re doing, had to go zone, Davion (Mintz) playing, and then I said, “Let B.J. play for you.” Are you kidding me? He didn’t play point at one time in any practice at any point.
So we ended the night, I looked, I said, we’re right there, we shot 31 percent in the first half and we’re down one — I loved it, but I’m still saying the same thing. You know, there were points in the game, one or two or three plays, bang, that changed the complexion of the game and we’ve still got to get it under control.
Brandon Boston Jr.
On the perseverance of this team ...
“Coach tells us every single game to keep fighting, no matter the outcome, keep fighting all 40 minutes. That’s what we did today, but unfortunately it didn’t go our way today.”
On if you will take away more positives than hurdles from this game ...
“Nah, I always keep it positive. I feel like this was a game where we grew and learned. We finally fought the last five minutes of the game, and I feel like we just came out ready to play from the start, and that’s what happened today.”
On the difference in this second half vs. others ...
“You know, just us getting in the gym every day, early mornings, late nights, just trying to perfect our craft.”
On if the team’s mindset has shifted to just improving ahead of the SEC Tournament ...
“For sure. We can’t worry about the losses. You know, we take those as lessons and continue to work hard and grow every day.”
On Devin Askew leading the huddle at the end of the game ...
“Definitely. He was just getting us fired up, telling us we have to finish this game out. Just be ready to shoot and be ready to defend.”
On if you need more leadership in the huddle from Devin Askey or anyone else ...
“Definitely. Definitely need those encouraging words down the stretch.”
On his thoughts on the chemistry of Olivier Sarr and Devin Askew …
“You know that’s something we work on every day with those two. Just try to let Devin read the screen and roll and find help with a man and get the shot that he needs to take.”
On handling Terrence Clarke’s absence for four weeks …
“He’s just trying to stay positive through this whole thing. There’s a lot of adversity and hate this year. We just have each other’s backs and tell each other to just smile through everything.”
On if the last ball was meant for him and just wound up in the wrong hands …
“Yeah it was set up for me to take the shot, but we just didn’t think fast enough.”
On what got him going for tonight’s game …
“Like I said, just waking up early in the morning, waking up at night just going to the gym whenever I can to put up a lot of shots and make them. I’m just building my own confidence every day.”
On what his confidence is at this point …
“My confidence is always high, no matter if I’m going through ups and downs my confidence has to stay high.”
On if he could paint a picture of the rest of the season how it would play out …
“I told the guys after the game that I loved how we fought. As long as we keep fighting that way and playing with each other we won’t lose. That’s what I think.”
On how his views of toughness has changed over the season until now …
“Toughness is everything. Coming up with every rebound, with every ball if we lose the ball, playing defense, guarding your man, hitting those dagger shots. Toughness is all of that.”