UK Basketball: Kentucky is good, but the 'norm' has been better

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LEXINGTON - Kentucky is not in the national rankings, not leading the Southeastern Conference and far from assured of even landing a spot in the NCAA tournament. Yet compared to Mississippi State, the Wildcats are having a banner season.

“We know that. We’re good. The issue has been the last seven or eight years we’ve won 30 games. Well, that’s never been done in the history of our sport, but we think it’s the norm, like, you’re supposed to win 30. And then everyone with us, all the fans and media, you’re supposed to win 30,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Tuesday.

“Well, people don’t win 30. We just had a heck of a run. So the other side of this is when you watch them ... I just watched them (Mississippi State play Alabama at Alabama six days ago. It was a four-point game with five minutes to go, at Alabama. I just watched their game with LSU. It was a two- or three-bucket game at the end of the half. LSU made some 3s, turned them over and spread it out, but it ended up being a 12-point game. This team is capable.”

Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 SEC)¿plays Mississippi State (7-19, 2-12), which has lost 12 straight conference games, tonight at Rupp Arena coming off wins over Vanderbilt and Missouri. However, before that the Cats lost by 30 points at Tennessee in their first game without injured center Nerlens Noel.

“If we don’t have the maturity to understand one week ago … Where were we? One week ago we were in coffins, people were trying to nail them shut. Now all the sudden, we’re like, ‘OK, wow.’ Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don’t have maturity or toughness,” Calipari said. “You just don’t have that mental toughness to come every day and to battle. We’ll see. You don’t have to say one word. They’re going to watch how you play, and if you do what you’re supposed to people and make their judgments.”

Calipari has been forced to change his team’s identity several times this season. Point guard Ryan Harrow missed about three weeks for personal reasons. Willie Cauley-Stein was out four games after undergoing minor knee surgery. Now Noel is done for the season with a torn ACL.

“You’ve got to just keep trying stuff, you know?” Calipari said. “I tell them, ‘You’re sitting in seats that everyone in the country wants to sit in. Don’t look back five years from now and have regrets that you didn’t give everything, sacrifice and do all the work.’ You’re in a seat where everybody in the country wants to sit in, and for me as a coach I don’t want to look back on this season and say I didn’t try everything, I didn’t give everything I could give and try different things and outside the box and listen to different people and try that.

“So when it’s all said and done I live with no regrets, and right now that’s what we’ve been doing. What’s working right now might not work a week from now, and we’ll try something different.”

Forward Kyle Wiltjer says it is no secret what Kentucky did to rebound and beat Vandy and Missouri.

“We just went back to the basics. Just playing basketball, we have a lot of open sets now just playing,” Wiltjer said. “Also, we really picked up our defense as of late. With those things we are going to have to play a little differently, because we don’t have our shot-blocking presence. I think we are doing a great job adjusting.”

Two years ago, UK lost six SEC road games, only to hit its peak in the postseason and make the Final Four even though the Cats were not even assured of a bye in the SEC tournament going into the final week of the regular season.

“We lost all those close games. We couldn’t get over the hump late. We won, I think, the last three or four, went to the tournament, played just OK, then played Florida and played a heck of a game. Then went to the NCAA tournament and all the sudden the season changed. That was about the same time as now,” Calipari said. “So, no, I’m not surprised. But, even then you say, ‘we started clicking.’ We just kept going.

“We had the maturity to say, ‘Let’s take advantage of this now. Let’s see if we have that maturity to take advantage of the position we’re now versus the position we were in seven days ago, eight days ago, whatever that was.’”

Calipari said this team has run out of excuses for poor play and has no choice but to play.

“It’s just, you got to go battle. You’re talented enough, you’re good enough, we have enough guys. What excuse or cop-out can you use now? You just got to go play. We’re telling them, ‘Hey, shoot the ball; worry about missing later. Worry about what happens if you miss later.’ We’re doing all the stuff to get them the ball,” he said.

“What happens at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, you’ve got to step in the ring and look at the other guy and say, ‘Let’s go.’ Or you can walk in the ring: ‘Oh, it’s really slippery in here and wet. Can we start again? Can we go out and (come back)? My manager’s yelling at me too much. I don’t feel right.’

“When you’re in the ring, you’ve got to battle. The Missouri game was a great lesson that they can do this and they have it in them, which I kept saying. But so was the Vandy game. Vandy goes and wins the next game by 40. By 40. On the road.”

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