At least Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari and most UK fans agree about one thing when it comes to the Cats' four road losses, including two in a row last week.
"When you lose in this sport it's a crisis. It doesn't matter if its one half-court bank shot, it is a crisis. And if you play for me, you'll understand it's a crisis," said Calipari Monday.
Kentucky hopes to play in a crisis mode tonight when it entertains Tennessee on ESPN. The Cats are already two games behind Florida in the loss column in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division race and dropped to No. 18 in the rankings Monday. With a game at No. 23 Vanderbilt Saturday, Kentucky desperately needs to beat the Vols in the game that marks the return of coach Bruce Pearl to the bench after his eight-game SEC suspension for lying to NCAA investigators.
Calipari's message to his team is that it is "playing to get better" and that by doing that UK will win games it has lost in conference play.
"So I'm not talking to them as far as we have to win this next game. We don't. It's going to be a hard game. The next one's going to be a hard game. What we have to show is we're going to get better, because if we get better, at the end of the day this is all going to play out lovely. If we don't get better – you don't change and we don't get better – it will be ugly," Calipari said.
Maybe, but if the Cats don't win this game, it could start getting ugly immediately. Already Kentucky is off to its worst SEC start (4-4) in over 20 years and has lost consecutive games for the first time in Calipari's two seasons here.
The coach was frustrated with Saturday's loss at Florida because he saw many of the same mistakes that led to two-point losses at Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi earlier.
"If we win and we play poorly I'm all over them. If we had won this last game hopefully I'd have watched the tape and been just as mad. The problem is I might not have been. I might have thought, ‘We're OK, stick your head in the sand we finally won a game.' It can't be that way when you're coaching, especially a young, inexperienced team," Calipari said.
Calipari admitted that if freshman Brandon Knight had made the game-winning 3-pointer at Florida instead of missing, he might not have been as critical when he reviewed the game tape. But he watched and again saw a lack of toughness, togetherness, passion and will to win. Now he says he is doing things to get UK out of "this little rut" that has led to losses.
"It may take us a week or two. I hope not because this hasn't been fun, but the bottom line is, we've got to get better. It's not just winning. We have to get better. And we have to shore up these areas so when March rolls around we're ready to go because we're not ready right now," Calipari said.
The coach got so upset on the plane ride home from Florida that he called individual players to the front to sit with him and see mistakes they made.
"Whoever was on the plane will tell you. They thought the plane was decompressing, we were going to go back. I'm not lying; the pilot came out and said it," Calipari said. "I was mean. I was loud but I was mean. I was just, ‘Look at this, what are you going to say? What is your excuse? Let's look at it again. It was just little plays like that.'
"And I'll say it again. I still like my team. Everything we want to accomplish is out in front of us. Unless, we do not take responsibility, individual responsibility, and we don't begin to change."
Considering Calipari has said he doesn't worry about winning SEC regular-season or tournament titles — statements that infuriate many UK fans — isn't throwing the word "crisis" around a bit strong.
"I use crisis all the time wherever I coached. If you lose a game or a road game or you lose a couple of games, that's the word crisis. The people in Memphis know I used it many times. But that is the only thing that brings about change. Winning close, and if you do it too much and you don't change, then you start to lose them in a row because you didn't change," Calipari said.
Obviously, not winning SEC games hurts UK's seeding for the NCAA Tournament. So regardless of what he says, these conference games are important — and he knows it.
But rather than dwell on Doron Lamb's bad offensive performance at Florida, the offensive slippage by DeAndre Liggins, overall woes of Josh Harrellson or a still inconsistent bench, Calipari went back to beating the Big Blue drum to rally his team for tonight's must-win game.
"I still like my team. I like our chances. We will find out how we play. If we are playing better and doing the right things and if it is not good enough, then you move on and say we are still improving and we are fine. We are still one of those teams," the coach said.
"But here's what a crisis brings around. A crisis brings about change. Meetings, individual meetings, they're a waste of time. Team meetings, they're a waste of time. Crisis will bring about change, unless you really don't care. And if you don't care everybody's going to see it. I think these guys care, so we'll see how they do."
Calipari says "it's a crisis" for UK now
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