"I came to this conclusion," Calipari declared Tuesday after Kentucky's hard-fought 75-65 win over Tennessee at Rupp Arena. "In the last seven or eight years, I've coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people. This ain't one of them."
For those among the Kentucky faithful still holding out hope that this collection of five-star prep talent may morph into something resembling last year's national champions, Calipari concedes it's not going to happen. Tighten the seatbelt. Every game is going to be a wild ride, just like this one, in which the struggling Volunteers played most of the night without star forward Jarnell Stokes due to foul trouble and still managed to come within an eyelash of handing the Wildcats their second SEC loss at home in the last four days.
|Nerlens Noel had another stat-happy game in Kentucky's win Tuesday over Tennessee.|
Don't let the 10-point final margin deceive you. Tennessee trailed by only six with 42 seconds remaining and had two flagrant foul free throws plus possession of the ball to make 24,033 mostly blue-clad fans gnaw what was left of their fingernails from the edge of their seats.
Alas, the Volunteers' Josh Richardson missed two free throws -- including an airball that not only failed to catch rim length-wise, but also appeared to be wide left -- and Tennessee's Jordan McRae missed a jumper on the ensuing possession that killed the visitors' final opportunity to sneak out of Lexington with their first win at Kentucky since 2006.
"Every game that we're going to be in is going to be a dogfight," Calipari said. "And instead of going crazy about it, how about just accept it? Right? And coach that way. I can't imagine this team being up 20 on anybody.
"Look folks, we are what we are. I love this team. We have so much upside. (But) we're going to be in dogfights. We gotta go to Auburn (on Saturday). Auburn's playing as well as anyone in our league right now. It's on the road. They're retiring numbers. It's jersey day, cup day and bat day in Auburn. It's going to be an absolute war."
Indeed, as Calipari is fond of saying, the Wildcats are "everyone's Super Bowl."
Kentucky (11-5, 2-1 SEC) was pushed to the limit by Tennessee (8-7, 0-3) in a game that featured nine ties and 12 lead changes. The Wildcats' biggest lead came on free throws in the final 30 seconds.
But unlike some of Kentucky's near misses earlier this season (a 7-point loss to Duke at the Georgia Dome and a 3-point loss at Louisville) the Wildcats got some clutch plays down the stretch to earn the victory. Senior guard Julius Mays hit a pair of 3-pointers at the 5:08 and 4:20 marks to turn a two-point lead into a six-point advantage.
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, who had scored only two points last Thursday at Vanderbilt and went scoreless on Saturday in an 83-71 loss to Texas A&M, followed Mays' big shots with a sequence which saw him dish out an assist, make two old-school moves for baskets in the paint, block a shot, grab a rebound and hit a free throw. He finished with a team-high 17 points.
"Kyle was terrific," said Calipari, who had given a brutal assessment of the Oregon native's spot in the Kentucky program following the near-loss at Vanderbilt. "
"It felt good to go out and execute the stuff we've been working on in practice," Wiltjer said. "I didn't want to feel the way I felt after the last two games, especially losing (to Texas A&M)."
"You know what was great about Kyle?" Calipari added. "For the first time since he's been here, Kyle told me to run a play for him, which I absolutely did. The minute a young man comes to you and says, ‘Coach, run four down,' you run it because it's off me and on him. So I always will do it. And he even came back after he made that shot and said run another play for him. And we did. And then when he came back on the third one, I said, ‘C'mon man. Let somebody else try to shoot.'"
Calipari is trying to keep a sense of humor in a season that has been anything but giggles for a Kentucky squad that faces the highest expectations of arguably any program in America. A caller to his weekly radio show implored him to be patient with the Wildcats and not "stroke out" on him.
And remember, those are soothing words coming from a fan base that once produced a now-infamous call to the Tubby Smith radio show calling the Wildcats "the worst 22-4 team I've ever seen." That squad went on to win the 1998 national championship.
Calipari pledged more patience on this night but refused to set limitations on how far this UK team can go in March.
"You'd agree it looks like we're set for the next couple of years," said Calipari, referring to yet another No. 1 national recruiting class on the way to Lexington in 2013. "We just won a championship. If there was a year where I could say, ‘Oh, we can let it slide,' this would probably be it. But no. Who would that be cheating? I'm cheating those players if I let that happen ... If it comes to that, I'm done. I'll retire. I've had my good run, and I'm done."
* Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel had another stat-stuffing line with 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocked shots, four steals and two assists. He has 13 blocked shots and eight steals in the last two games.
* Tennessee got a game-high 23 points from McRae.
* The Wildcats out-rebounded the Volunteers 34-30. The Wildcats are 9-2 this season when winning the battle on the glass.
* Kentucky improved to 11-0 this season when leading at halftime. The Cats are 0-5 when trailing at the break. They led 34-31 on Tuesday.