Before Kentucky’s game vs. Lipscomb Saturday, Bison Coach Scott Sanderson delivered this message to his team- “You aren’t playing the national champions. This is not the same team.”
UK Coach John Calipari has reloaded his roster with talent, but it’s plain to see that these Wildcats are not yet on that level. Case-in-point, walk-on guard Jared Polson is logging 15 minutes per game. Polson, unlike six players on last year’s championship team, will never be drafted by an NBA team. Yes, this year’s Wildcats have some work to do.
(Credit: UK Athletics/Chet White)
Leading up to the Lipscomb game, Coach Cal expressed some of the frustrations he has with his young squad. He told the Lexington Herald-Leader, “I should never have to coach energy, effort, passion and enthusiasm and be vocal. They can all do that. Well, that’s what my coaching is right now.” To get his team’s attention and create more toughness, Cal scheduled three practices a day leading up to Saturday’s game.
In the early going against Lipscomb, it appeared the young Wildcats still hadn’t gotten the message. At the 16:00 mark of the second half, Kentucky held a 10-point lead, but weren’t able to put the Bisons away. Lipscomb center Stephen Hurt had more than held his own against Kentucky’s talented post players. Cal chastised his frontcourt after the game. “That big kid (Hurt) had nine rebounds at halftime. My two big guys had three. (Hurt) threw our big guys around.”
Kentucky used a 17-1 run to break away from Lipscomb and went on to win handily. Still, after the game, Cal didn’t sound like a coach whose team had just won by 38 points. “If we don’t start changing we’re going to struggle. We’ve already struggled in any game that anybody had any physical toughness to them.”
So how do you instill toughness in a young team that is still a work in progress? Cal’s plan is simple-practice, practice, practice. “We’ll go tomorrow morning, have breakfast. Go tomorrow afternoon, have dinner, tomorrow evening and Monday.” You get the feeling Cal is prepared to will his team to success. “I’m not cracking at all. This is part of what I do.”
With a full week before the Cats host Marshall next Saturday and final exams behind them, there is plenty of time for “Camp Cal.” Sounds like this young UK squad will get the message, or be the best conditioned team in the country.
Apart from the lack of toughness on this year’s version of the Wildcats, I see another problem that could rear its head. This Kentucky team struggles to shoot. The Cats currently rank near the top of the SEC in 3-point percentage, but that stat is deceiving. Kyle Wiltjer has made nearly half of UK’s 3-point field goals this season. Aside from Wiltjer, no other Wildcat is making two 3-pointers per game (As a team, the Cats make less than six 3-point field goals per game). Opposing defenses in the SEC will certainly key on him, and someone else will have to step up and make some shots.
Poythress thrives at the rim, but he must continue to show improvement at the charity stripe. (Credit: UK Athletics/Chet White)
Also, the Wildcats rank near the bottom of the SEC in free throw percentage. Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, and Nerlens Noel lead the team in free throw attempts, yet all three shoot under 70% from the line. This could cost the Cats in close games.
Calipari acknowledges his young team is a work in progress, but feels the Cats have what it takes to be very good. Tomorrow morning at the first of three practices, he and his staff will continue to coax his squad into giving him what he wants. He delivered this simple message through the media at his postgame presser.
“It’s on. Here we go.”
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