March Madness is still a few days away for Kentucky, but it's already been a maddening season for John Calipari and the Wildcats.
Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 SEC) will play as the No. 2 seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament this week in Nashville hoping to add to its perpetually-iffy NCAA Tournament résumé.
Coming off a Senior Day win over league champ Florida on Saturday at Rupp Arena, conventional wisdom suggests the Cats are currently in the tournament field of 68. But many analysts believe UK must avoid a loss to the Arkansas/Vanderbilt winner on Friday in order to ensure an opportunity to defend the national championship.
It's uncharted territory for a coach accustomed to 30-win seasons and No. 1 seeds. And while most coaches are notoriously hesitant to speak publicly about anything beyond the next game on the schedule, Calipari admits he's spent a lot of time this season thinking about the future.
"It's a learning experience for me," Calipari said during Tuesday's press conference prior to departing for Nashville. "It's going to make me a better coach for next year's team."
Calipari has questioned himself on many occasions this season. Could he have managed this group of Wildcats differently? Better?
"Some of the stuff that went on that won't go on next year," he said. "(I'm) holding the bar to a higher standard. We'll have enough guys that my bench is going to be my best friend – all of those kind of things that will come into play."
For now, however, Calipari insists this UK team can write a special ending to its turbulent season.
"This is about when we did it two years ago," he said of the Brandon Knight/Josh Harrellson/DeAndre Liggins-led team that made an unexpected run to the Final Four. "But those guys made an effort to listen, to say we're going to do what we're asked to do. We're going to play at another level. We're going to take it up a notch. We're going to really fight like heck and play to win. This group can do that same thing, but we'll see."
Calipari seems to have gotten his second wind with the tournament approaching. Asked what he's learned about himself this season, he said: "I thought I was too old to go through what I just went through, and I guess I'm not. When some guys were struggling, I said, ‘I'm too old to go through that.' You know what? The one thing I have to say about this staff is no one quit on this team. No one quit on individual players. We kept trying to figure out ways. How do we get this turned? How do we get them to figure it out?"
One of those ways has been shifting a leadership role to an unexpected source.
Calipari believes freshman big man Willie Cauley-Stein, who took over the starting center position when Nerlens Noel went down Feb. 12 with a season-ending knee injury, could be the type of player the Cats could ride during a successful tournament run. He compared the situation to Kemba Walker carrying UConn to the 2011 championship after the Huskies labored through the regular season.
During Monday's SEC coaches teleconference, Calipari said he thought Cauley-Stein had a "25 (point), 15 (rebound), 7 (block)" game in him.
"Maybe It's Willie (Cauley-Stein)," he said. "Maybe Willie becomes the most dominating big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game and everybody else just does what they're supposed to do."
Calipari caught between present, future
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