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Calipari Hopes Latest Loss is Crisis UK Needed

This article appears courtesy RCN partner KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale.

When Willie Cauley-Stein looked ahead to his freshman season at UK, he did not know what to expect.

However, a five-loss season was not on the list, let along in the first 15 games.

“No. I mean, it’s Kentucky,” he said Monday.

But at the start of the second semester that’s exactly where Cauley-Stein and his teammates find their season: unranked with a 10-5 record.

The Wildcats are coming off a less-than-inspiring start to Southeastern Conference play. After bowing a 16-point lead but hanging on for a 60-58 win versus struggling Vanderbilt in the opener, UK suffered the third worst defeat of the John Calipari Era in a 83-71 loss to Texas A&M at Rupp Arena Saturday.

Asked what is different between this year’s team and his previous young UK teams, Calipari had no trouble listing off a variety of issues.

“There’s no one here to imitate,” he said. “This team doesn’t have the stopper that those other teams have had: one guy to just go guard somebody.

“The emotional guys — ‘Let’s go. Let’s stop this. That’s enough.’ Those are developing things with this team.”

Calipari does note this team “has some things those other teams didn’t have” like exceptional length, but he has zeroed in on the primary issue holding the current Wildcats back.

“The challenge I have with this team is to get them to that point where we all buy in, both feet in,” Calipari said. “Now let’s trust each other so we can finish off these games.”

For Calipari, “buying in” means players are willing to play how the team needs them to play, devote themselves to defense and commit to doing what their teammates expect them to.

“Now, it may not be the way you want to play, and it most likely is not the way you’ve ever played, but the only way you can really trust each other is you know what everybody is doing,” Calipari said.

Calipari says this team is not unlike his other young teams in that it has struggled to buy into the philosophy, but he acknowledges his freshmen are held to a different standard because they play at Kentucky.

“In their minds they’re saying, ‘I’ve never played harder and this dude wants more,’” Calipari said. ‘Now, if it were on a normal situation and he’s a freshman, I’m happy. I’m hugging him and telling him, ‘You’ll be alright, just try to play a little harder,’ but we’re at Kentucky. This is warp speed.”

UK players are aware of the different standard they are held to.

“I think it’s harder here because you’re supposed to get here and get out of here,” said sophomore point guardRyan Harrow. “Basically that’s what it is. But maybe that’s not what it is for this group, and we have to accept that and keep playing as hard as we can.”

“With how sped up the process if for us freshmen and sophomores that are playing, they make us where we have to play like a junior or senior,” Cauley-Stein said.

Calipari is somewhat sympathetic with that added pressure for his young players, but he also knows they entered the situation with open eyes.

“You decided to come here,” he said. “It wasn’t me. I didn’t beg you to come here. You knew coming in. I think they’re getting the picture.”

The next chance for players to show they’re ready to fully buy into Calipari’s system comes Tuesday versus Tennessee.

The Volunteers are 8-6 on the season and have opened SEC play with losses to Mississippi and Alabama.

“Tennessee is good,” Calipari said. “I don’t care what anybody says — ‘Well they’ve lost this game.’ Let me tell you, I just watched the tape.”

The Wildcats’ NCAA tournament resume can ill-afford losses to teams at the bottom of the SEC standings. UK has no marquee wins on its schedule, and only Mississippi, Florida and Missouri are considered likely tournament teams from the conference at the moment.

The ability of Calipari’s players to make the changes their coach has been looking for in a stretch of SEC games against Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and LSU will go a long way in determining if the Wildcats can still consider themselves in that group of likely tournament teams.

While the schedule may set up for a prime opportunity for players to show their acceptance of the “Calipari Way,” the failure of some players to buy into his system is not a new problem for this team.

“It’s always been an issue,” Cauley-Stein said. “We’ve just haven’t changed yet.”

When and if that change will come remains to be seen, but Calipari hopes it’s soon.

“The only thing that brings about a change is crisis,” he said. “I’m hoping it’s Texas A&M, but it may not be. We may need to get hit on the chin three or four more times before they look at each other and say, ‘It’s not working this way.’”

Photo: UK's Nerlens Noel dunks against Texas A&M/Jon Hale