Calipari: This Year's Wildcats Could Be Like 2011's UConn
This story appears courtesy of KY Foward and is written by Jon Hale. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.
You could not blame UK fans for hoping the Wildcat’s win versus No. 11 Florida to close out the regular season is a sign that the young team has finally turned a corner.
Just don’t expect the Cats’ emerging star or coach to commit to that turnaround.
“We’ve been where it seemed like we turned a turning point and reverted right back, so I just don’t know,” said freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who is averaging 11.3 points, nine rebounds and 3.8 blocks per game in UK’s last six games.
Cauley-Stein was referencing previous supposed “statement wins” versus Ole Miss and Missouri.
The Cats followed an 87-74 win at Ole Miss on Jan. 29 with three consecutive wins before dropping back-to-back road games by double digits against Florida and Tennessee. Playing without injured star Nerlens Noel, the Cats rebounded from those losses with a 90-83 home victory versus Missouri on Feb. 23 but a week later dropped two more road games, this time against Arkansas and Georgia.
While the win versus Florida is UK’s most impressive victory to date, Cauley-Stein knows he and his teammates will have to prove that this turning point is different from the previous attempts.
“I think there’s some guys in there Willie doesn’t trust,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “When they don’t feel like playing, they don’t play. We have a little of that.”
While the win versus Florida may not be the Cats’ first chance to prove they have turned a corner, it is almost certainly their last.
Most NCAA Tournament bracket projections have the Cats just making the field after the victory, but a loss to either Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday could put that standing in jeopardy.
Players are approaching this week’s SEC Tournament with the mindset of making sure the NCAA selection committee has no choice but to include UK in the tournament field.
Calipari has made no secret of his distain for the postseason conference tournament since he arrived at UK. While the stakes may be higher for his team this year than in previous seasons where they were assured of being included in the NCAA Tournament field, his opinion has not changed.
“There’s an importance to it that way, seeding or whatever else, but as far as playing in a tournament at this time — three games in three days — I’m not a big fan,” he said.
Calipari spent part of his Tuesday news conference talking about what lessons he learned from this season and how he would apply those to future teams, but he also noted he remains confident the current Cats can be special.
“Two years ago Connecticut won the national title, and they were 9-9 in their league,” he noted. “They were like an 11 seed in their tournament. Then they figured it out, guys started fighting and everybody started playing well. You can do this. This is one of those years.
“But, you have to what to do it. And that has to be the most important thing to you: not how you’re playing, how we’re playing. That’s part of what we’re fighting to break through with this team.”
Calipari was reminded that Connecticut featured All-American guard Kemba Walker, who averaged more than 23 points per game in the Huskies’ championship run.
Does this team have a player capable of putting on a Walker-like performance?
“Maybe it’s Willie,” Calipari said. “Maybe Willie becomes the most dominant big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game, and everybody else just does what they’re supposed to do.”
Calipari said the coaching staff pointed out to Cauley-Stein the difference in the team’s level of play with and without him on the court versus Florida.
Cauley-Stein said he felt like he needs to bring an energy level that is sometimes lacking when he’s on the bench, but he has an even simpler goal to ensure the Cats make this turnaround permanent.
“Just listen to what coach has to say, because he’s been through it for so many years,” he said. “That’s something we don’t get: the time that he’s spent with this and preparing guys for it. We’re fresh in this game. He’s been there for a long time. We just got to listen, and I don’t think that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Poythress looked in mirror and found room for improvement before Florida win
Lapses of effort are nothing new for UK freshman Alex Poythress this season, but when the problem resurfaced Saturday versus Florida he responded in a new way.
“I took him out, his teammates got all over him,” said UK head coach John Calipari after the 61-57 win. “And he said, ‘Put me back in.’ He grew up today because he went back in and finished those last seven minutes and was a beast.”
The day before the upset win versus Florida, Poythress acknowledged to reporters that he was “probably disappointed” in himself because he felt like he “could give more effort out there.”
It was that epiphany that led him to respond to the mistake in Saturday’s game differently.
“Before I would put my head down, just focus on the mistake,” he said following the game. “You’ve got to let mistakes go. Everybody makes mistakes, so you’ve just got to move forward.”
Poythress finished the win versus No. 11 Florida, which boosted the Wildcats’ sagging NCAA Tournament hopes, with nine points and a season-high 12 rebounds. UK improved to 5-0 on the season when Poythress grabs at least nine rebounds.
In the aftermath of UK’s loss to Georgia last week, several players questioned the commitment level of some unnamed teammates.
It was therefore encouraging for them to see Poythress respond in such a pivotal game.
“He tends sometimes to kind of stray away. He gets down on himself,” said senior guard Julius Mays of Poythress. “You expect that from a young guy, but tonight he responded. Other times in the season he’s got down on himself and he hasn’t responded.”
Poythress has been an enigma for the Cats all season. At times he plays in what Calipari and fans have dubbed “beast mode,” like a four-game stretch where he averaged more than 20 points per game early in the season. At other times, he disappears for long stretches, like a stretch of five games in early February where he did not break double digits in points.
Calipari has made no secret of his desire to get Poythress to play with consistent effort. His teammates have also been vocal about how important it is to get Poythress to find that “beast mode” more often.
According to Poythress, he’s finally reached the point where he expects those type of performances of himself.
“I just looked at myself in the mirror and just realized, you know, I could’ve been better this whole year, could’ve been better in some areas,” he said. “Just time to grow up, really.”
Poythress and his teammates are among the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament according to most national media bracket projections. A strong performance in the SEC Tournament, where the Cats will be the No. 2 seed and open play Friday at 7:30 p.m., could cement their spot in the field.
Poythress is eager for more chances to prove himself, especially since the SEC Tournament will be played in Nashville near his Clarksville, Tenn., home.
While UK’s next loss could conceivably end the season, Poythress doesn’t think it’s too late to develop a new reputation.
“It’s never too late,” he said. “There’s always time to change. Our season’s not over yet, so just keep on going. There’s always time to change.”
You can see the full SEC Tournament bracket here.
UK players win SEC honors
Nerlens Noel missed the final seven games of the regular season, but that did not stop him from earning several postseason Southeastern Conference honors Tuesday.
Noel was named the league’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. He also was named First Team All-SEC.
Noel was joined by guard Archie Goodwin, forward Alex Poythressand forward Willie Cauley-Steinon the SEC All-Freshman Team. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjerwas named SEC Sixth-Man of the Year.
Noel averaged 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in 24 games played. He logged 106 blocked shots and 50 steals to become just the second player in school history to total 100 or more blocked shots in a season. His 50 steals were the fifth-most by a Kentucky freshman in a single season.
The Everett, Mass., native is the fourth consecutive Wildcat to win the Freshman of the Year award and fifth UK player to earn the honor. He joins Anthony Davis(2012), Terrence Jones (2011), DeMarcus Cousins (2010) and Pattrick Patterson (2008) as UK SEC Freshman of the Year winniners.
His is the third Wildcats, joining Davis (2012) andChuck Hayes (2005), to be named Defensive Player of the Year.
Florida’s Billy Donovan earned SEC Coach of the Year honors while Georgia sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was selected the SEC Player of the Year by the league’s coaches.
Written by Jon Hale
Photo: Willie Cauley-Stein takes it to the hoop against Florida on Saturday/RCN