Kentucky coach John Calipari knows the accolades his team have been hearing since it dismantled South Carolina on Saturday to continue a dominant three-game stretch that also included big wins over LSU¿and Tennessee. However, he also knows games tonight with Florida and Saturday at Vanderbilt are going to be much more difficult than any other Southeastern Conference games his team has faced this season.
“I am going to talk to them today about let’s make sure we are being humble and understand why we have been winning and where we have to take this to,” Calipari said Monday. “The issue we have is this is one of the youngest teams in the country, and I imagine as a ranked team we are the youngest. There’s an easy transition from a swagger to arrogance, and that’s where you get beat.”
Kentucky is ranked No. 1 and already being touted as the best team Calipari has had at UK. New draft projections have five Wildcats — Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague — all as first round selections in the June NBA draft.
Perhaps that’s another reason for Calipari to remind his team that it is not ready to assume greatness quite yet.
“We are a good team, but not a great team,” Calipari said. “We would like to be at the end of year as good as our team was at the end of last year (when UK¿reached the Final Four). I am talking about a basketball team, not individual talent. Last year at the end of the year we were as good a team as there was in the country, and that is what we are trying to do with this team.”
He says it is important for his team to understand why it has won the last three games by 24, 25 and 34 points and held the last four opponents to 52 or fewer points. He used the Super Bowl New York Giants as an example of how a team can change.
“Mid-season, what were they talking about for the Giants? Fire the coach. Fire the coordinators. Fire everybody. They just won the Super Bowl, biggest game, halftime show. How did they do it? They win the game because they were the best team at this time of the year. They were the best football team,” Calipari said.
“Last year I felt my team was the best basketball team. We weren’t at this time. We were talking about firing the coach here at this point last year. We lost six road games. What I’m trying to tell you is, it’s February, what’s the date, the sixth. We got three, four more weeks where we have to keep peaking now. This can’t be it because if this is it, you start going down the wrong way.”
Sounds good, but Kentucky fans were already worried the team might be peaking too early. Never mind the same fans were worried when the team wasn’t winning by bigger margins earlier in the season.
But can a team peak too early?
“I’ve seen teams in November, December play so well that I’m thinking, ‘I’m glad he’s coaching that team and not me.’ Sometimes I’ll pull the reins back. I won’t give them as much stuff offensively,” Calipari said. “I just want them to get in shape and play hard. I’ve seen teams come out of the gate like, ‘There’s no way they can sustain this.’
“It’s too much road between now and the end of the season. So we didn’t exactly want to lose six road games (last year), even though they were like one-point games and buzzer beaters. We didn’t want to, but my team was getting better each day, each week, and that’s what we’re trying to do with this team.”
Anthony Davis, Kentucky’s best player at this juncture and maybe the best player in the nation, understands. Kentucky will give out a special poster at tonight’s game touting his defensive exploits — he leads the nation in blocked shots and is a major reason UK¿leads the nation in field goal defense.
But arrogant? That’s not a word Davis even thinks about.
“We just have to come out and stay focused. If you come out with this arrogance you definitely can be beat. Thinking like, ‘Oh, we’re the best in the country we can’t lose,’” then you definitely can be beat,” Davis said. “But if you come out with the mindset like we have to play the whole 40 minutes and not be living off the breaks, then you definitely have a better chance of winning.”
So there’s no pressure with a 15-game win streak and continuing to be ranked No. 1?
“We really don’t talk about it at all. We go in each game like it’s another game. Go in and play hard for the whole 40 minutes and just try to get wins,” Davis said.
Nothing arrogant about that, either, because that’s just what Calipari’s Cats are doing better than any team in the nation right now.
Vaught's Views: Calipari wants his team to guard against going from having a swagger to being arrogant
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