LEXINGTON, Ky. — Seated behind a table on a makeshift stage in the bowels of Rupp Arena, Kentucky coach John Calipari gazed out across a retinue of assembled media.
Tie undone and cuffs rolled up after a 75-65 victory Jan. 15 against Tennessee, Calipari delivered a concise appraisal of the youth-laden successor to last season’s national title juggernaut.
“I’ve coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people,” he said before pausing.
The chuckles of scribes bounced off the cinder-block walls. Leaning forward on his elbows, Calipari shrugged. He frowned. Slowly, he swiveled his head to deliver a final rhetorical blow.
“This ain’t one of them,” he said.
For members of the Big Blue Nation and national pundits, the Wildcats (12-6, 3-2 SEC), who host LSU (10-6, 1-4) at 3 p.m. Saturday, are a curious topic. A fourth consecutive squad built on elite freshmen, UK tumbled from a No. 3 preseason ranking all the way out of the polls, had its 54-game home winning streak end and left Calipari tinkering with a brash coaching style to find desired zeal and forge trust among a disparate group of personalities.
On Monday, Calipari reiterated a logic that called for setting modest expectations in the face of preseason projections of another Final Four run led by the freshman quartet of forwards Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, guard Archie Goodwin and center Nerlens Noel.
“What we’re doing has not been done, where you’re trying to take on veteran college teams with all freshmen,” he said. “It takes time to get teams together. And I’ve got to be even more patient.”
So how are the royal blue-and-white crazed masses of Big Blue Nation handling the crisis? Pretty well, actually.
“It’s not as worrisome as some people make it out,” said Jerry Tipton, who has covered Kentucky since 1980 for The Lexington Herald-Leader. “There’s still a little bit of a honeymoon period here because they won it all last year.”
The afterglow of a national title, the program’s first since 1999, sates the fan base for now. The arrival of another batch of elite recruits, four of whom are ranked in the top 20 of Rivals.com’s 150 rankings, also atones for six losses so far.
“Next year, the clock will start ticking again,” Tipton said. “This year has already been judged and filed away.”
The analysis explains why fans didn’t rain down boos from the rafters after Texas A&M reeled off a 16-1 run with less than six minutes to go in an 83-71 loss Jan. 12. Or that roughly 23,000 fans applauded Aggies guard Elston Turner as he plodded to the bench after piling up 40 points.
Turner was succinct after the Aggies notched the upset, which left Kentucky 59-2 at Rupp under Calipari. Are the Wildcats talented? Absolutely. Tough enough to endure runs by veteran teams? Well, that’s another matter.
“I could just tell by body language,” Turner said. “There’s a difference between a veteran team going on a run as opposed to younger teams going on runs.”
Two days after losing to the Aggies, Calipari bluntly stated his diagnosis: a lack of “buy-in.” Players need to accept roles and execute them consistently, he said. The second part is getting them to play with emotion, an act that’s been harder to coax out.
“If we have to coach emotion, intensity and effort, you’re not really coaching basketball,” he said. “When you’re concerned about how you’re playing and miss shots, it’s hard to chest-bump somebody.”
Does the mental block stem from a sense of entitlement? Asked whether he expected to lose five times, Cauley-Stein’s short reply might glean insight.
“No,” Cauley-Stein said simply. “I mean, it’s Kentucky.”
Against Tennessee, the Wildcats displayed a trait that also nags at Calipari: an inability to close out games. Until there were three minutes left, the Volunteers had hung within three points.
“Every game is going to be a dogfight for us,” Calipari said. “I can’t accept this team being up 20 (points) on anybody.”
His charges didn’t loudly protest the assertion.
“We just kill ourselves sometimes,” Poythress said. “We don’t know how to demolish a team.”
Fresh off losses to Notre Dame and Baylor in the nonconference season, Calipari established “Camp Cal” — three-a-day practices — to inject his team with moxie and toughness. There were running sessions at 7 a.m., and he had trainers wrap heart monitors around his players’ chests to measure exertion.
“You could argue with the emotions of somebody,” Tipton said of his interpretation of the move. “You couldn’t argue with numbers. The heart rate is what the heart rate is, and maybe that would bring it out of guys. It was just another means, another attempt to get more out of these guys.”
The purpose? Old means weren’t working.
Calipari doesn’t couch his pitch to the nation’s best high school prospects. Coming to Lexington is not a minting process for a player to earn a multimillion dollar contract. You don’t drop your bags for a year and pick them up to follow the path of top-10 NBA draft picks John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
“We don’t recruit kids and tell them that,” Calipari said. “Obviously if kids have an opportunity to leave after one year, that’s fine. (The point is) to come in here and know this is not for everybody. This is the ultimate challenge to play here.”
That means dealing with point guard Ryan Harrow, a vaunted transfer from N.C. State, as he battled illness and he missed 17 days and four games because of a family issue in November. It’s imploring freshman guard Archie Goodwin, a rangy scorer, to forgo all-too-familiar hell-bent drives to the rim and look instead for a runner or pull-up jumper and to involve his teammates.
But none of the quartet embodies Coach Cal’s qualms better than Poythress, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound five-star talent out of Clarksville, Tenn. Despite averaging 12.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, Poythress is frequently the target of verbal pummeling — namely for failing to push through a physical wall or make hustle plays.
“No matter what he does,” Tipton said, “Calipari is always wanting more.”
During the monthlong slog of Camp Cal, Poythress’ effort was a frequent topic, slowing when his heart rate hit a ceiling. His teammates cajoled him to show more joy — you play at Kentucky, was the gist.
Contrasting Poythress was Noel, who has averaged 10.7 points and 9.4 rebounds. Against the Volunteers, he posted 12 points, nine rebounds and six blocks, emerging as the long-sought face of this year’s class.
Not that it caught Calipari by surprise. He saw it coming during the grueling conditioning work. In short, Noel was the foil of Poythress.
“Other guys over a month, their exertion and their heart rates never really moved,” Calipari said after the Tennessee victory. “Nerlens, on the other hand, started in the same spot and just kept moving.”
A week ago, Kentucky throttled Auburn 75-53 on the road, leading to questions about whether the Wildcats’ once-glossy veneer had a little more grit. Now there’s a larger question to mull for Kentucky after Tuesday’s 59-55 loss to Alabama, one where the Wildcats’ led by as many as 11 points in the first half.
“We played not to lose,” Calipari said. “That’s what young teams do on the road.”
Saddled with six losses and an 0-6 record against the RPI top 60, could Kentucky miss the NCAA Tournament without a course correction in the SEC, the weakest power conference in the nation?
CBS Sports bracket expert Jerry Palm hasn’t had the Wildcats in his 68-team field for two weeks. At Bracket Matrix, a website tracking projections, the Wildcats would likely be a No. 11 seed — one of the final teams in the field.
“They really only have two or three chances left for a marquee win,” Tipton said. If you lose to one of the lesser lights, that could really hurt you in terms of your résumé. If you beat them, it’s, ‘So what?’ ”
Calipari’s force of will isn’t the ultimate arbiter of success. No, that falls solely on his precocious players.
“Cal’s done enough things for us,” Noel said.
“It’s about time we take responsibility.”