The Kentucky Wildcats will play their regular-season finale on Saturday when they face the Florida Gators.
Few games this weekend will have as much at stake as this SEC clash will. The winner earns the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament. That means the winner would not only not have to play until Friday, but they would avoid facing the No. 1 seed until the SEC Championship.
However, the loser could fall down to the No. 5 seed and fail to earn a double-bye in the SEC Tournament. Every year John Calipari has been in Lexington, the winner of the SEC Tournament has been a top-four seed.
Needless to say, this is a game UK badly needs to win in order to keep building momentum toward a deep run in the SEC and NCAA Tournament.
On Friday, Calipari met with the media to preview Saturday’s game. Here is a recap of everything he said, courtesy of UK Athletics:
On if there have been any advantages or pressure relieved with PJ Washington coming off the bench ...
”The only reason I haven’t changed is that they’re winning now. Two of the games we were down 14-0 to start the games. So for somebody to say, ‘Well, we’re winning.’ Yeah, but we’re not starting good – until the last game. We started better last game. So, you know, I’ll probably stick with it. He didn’t care. Everybody made a commitment when we got in that team meeting together and I started really defining roles and how we were going to play.
“And one of the things I said, ‘Is everybody committed to this?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How about if you’re not starting? What if you’re not starting, Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander)? What if you’re not starting, PJ?’ ‘I’m good.’ ‘And how about if you’re not playing as many minutes or getting as many shots? Everybody is OK? Raise your hand if you’re fine.’ And they all did. So PJ has been great. It’s like I was with Hami (Diallo), with Nick (Richards) and I just -- we need him. So starting him, maybe he gets going in a game and it’s like Hami – he has a breakthrough.
“My talk to him yesterday was simple because, again, I got 18- and 19-year-old kids. Before you can worry about conquering somebody else, you gotta conquer yourself. That’s what the whole message was. You have to overcome stuff that’s holding you back and not blame anybody. Don’t blame anybody. Don’t blame a coach, a teammate, a fan. What do you have to overcome? Some of it is just plain self-discipline in a lot of areas where guys just don’t have it. The last game, who were the first two guys out in the gym at Rupp Arena? Who were the first two guys in the gym? Who shot the ball well? Hami, Wenyen (Gabriel).
“Now, Wenyen was mad because I pointed out seven times in the meeting that was the only time he had been out early. Like, he’s in the back. ‘Why are you back here?’ So, again you’ve gotta conquer you. And when you conquer you, you’ll have self-confidence, which means if it’s not going right you’ll still believe in yourself – if you’ve conquered you. If you know you’re not disciplined in any way – you do whatever you chose whenever you chose – you know it. These kids need all that kind of stuff because it’s bigger than just a basketball game. It’s the rest of their lives. The biggest fight they have is when the alarm goes off at 6:30. Do I get up or do I act like I have a tummy ache? I always used to just say tummy ache. Can I still do that? Who am I saying it to? My mom’s not here. I mean, all of that they have to learn.
“These are not 23-year old, 24-year old seniors. These are young people who are trying to figure this out in an environment that is very forgiving. Ah, this is a forgiving place. Forgiving fans. It’s a tough environment to try and learn on the run.”
On Chris Chiozza …
“He’s really good. I just watched another tape and when he’s in control they’re really good, and even when he’s not they’re really good. The Auburn game – it’s hard for me to watch that game because they made 15 3s. Florida did. If they make 15 3s against us? [Reporter: Who’s next?] Who’s next?
“So, watching it was ‘Ah, another one. Another one. Another one.’ Some of them were contested, some of them on a rotation and some of them – I just sat there and said, ‘Whew. I hope that’s not them.’ You know what? They lost three in a row. They went through what we went through, and then they came back and won that game and then beat Alabama on the road. They’re clicking at the right time, too.”
On if the team enjoys playing defense …
“Maybe not last game but prior to last game, yeah. You understand again, I keep coming back to, guys are trying to establish who they are. I had to help them. They still – ‘You don’t understand.’ ‘Oh, I do and so does everybody else that has been watching you.’ Just do this. You are looking very good right now. But when you have that and you are comfortable, you are better on defense. But here’s the other side that killed us early, when the offense, we were inept.
“You have great defense for five straight plays and you get no reward. You don’t go down and score. You miss a layup, you shoot an air ball on a wide-open 3. The wrong guy drives the ball and just turns it over. Unrewarded defense after awhile you are like whew, guarding and doing all of this is not leading to anything. So it’s kind of been a combination that guys are more in tuned to the team offensively, what they have to do. Which makes them more likely to be enthused about defending.”
On Florida coach Mike White questioning his team’s competitiveness earlier this season and the message it sends to the opposing coach …
“No. I even wondered. Look, I tell you guys all the time, I evaluate coaches. You guys do it however you want. I want to know when things go south, how do they respond? And do they know their team better than anybody? And does the team respond to them? That’s coaching. You’re on a 10-game win streak, it’s all fun and games. Go on a losing streak. Now let me see who you are as a coach. If it’s about the coach, or his legacy, he’ll attack the kids.
“If Mike knew these guys needed me to shake them up and question them this way, he didn’t do it personally, I imagine. He didn’t do it specifically. He said, ‘As a team, we just don’t have a competitive spirit.’ I didn’t read it so I don’t know, but he knew his team what they needed. Plus he had a veteran team. Like with my team, I had to just keep telling them, ‘There’s hope. We can do this. I’m not shaken, I’m not blinking. I’m not. We’re going to do this. You have to believe.’ Different when you’ve got young kids. When you have a veteran team, go after them a little bit.”
On if he thinks the players were surprised he was pushing hope vs. yelling at them …
“No, I was yelling at them too. [Laughter.] What I was saying to them was, ‘Please give me something to cheer about! Do anything so that I can cheer you on!’ I was telling coaching friends of mine, ‘What do you do if they’re not – how do you coach, if you’re not going to correct and if they’re going to do the same thing three times, coach aggressively?’ What do you just clap? [Claps.] ‘Ah, don’t worry! [Claps.] I kept coaching. Off the court, ‘I believe in you, but I cannot let you do these things. I’ve got to hold you accountable.’ But, believe me, I was coaching.”
On what kind of games he thinks they’ll need Nick Richards to break through …
“Look, here, I’ll ask you this question: If Nick played as hard as Jarred (Vanderbilt), what would he be? [Reporter: Really good.] He would be really good, but explain what would he be. What would you say he’d be really good? [Reporter: Rebounding, active.] OK, and what would that mean for him personally? [Reporter: Lottery pick.] Top-five pick. Lottery, top-five pick. So my question is, why won’t you do that? You know what Jarred said? ‘It’s really hard.’ It’s hard. You don’t have to make a shot.
“How about the kid (Richards) can shoot, he can make free throws, he’s a good shot blocker. Play as hard as he (Vanderbilt) plays. ‘Well, um, OK.’ And we’re trying, but he’s young. He’s just learning. He’s never been through this. He’s been – like I’m telling him as much as anybody, ‘You’ve got to conquer you first, kid.’ Most of these kids, when they think they are done, they’ve got 40 percent left in the tank. Forty percent. But they have convinced themselves their whole life, ‘I’m stopping.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I feel like stopping. I can say whatever – Coach, I can’t go today. My knee just doesn’t good.’ ‘What? OK.’ All that stuff now, you come here, when it’s coming at you like this – you ready for a couple of these, guys? [Stares staring cross-eyed as if confused.]
“They don’t know if they’re coming or going, especially midseason. Now all of a sudden we’re kicking it in, but we need Nick and we need Sacha (Killeya-Jones). And here’s the thing: If Jarred and PJ and even Wenyen, and they’re really playing well, even if Sacha and Nick are playing well, their minutes are probably going to … [Reporter: Go down.] OK, even if your minutes go down, what are you going to do with your minutes? Are you going to blame somebody? Are you going to have an excuse? Are you going to already build it in? Or are you going to go in on your time and say, ‘No, no, I’m earning more minutes and I’m going to make one of these guys sit.’ Because if he were playing that way, one of those other guys ain’t getting as many minutes.
“But I’ve said that to him. Again, you conquer yourself or you’re trying to blame somebody. This stuff is – it’s more than just basketball with what I have to do here with young guys.”