"I can tell you the players are ready to play," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday during the SEC coaches teleconference. "Oh my gosh. They see me coming, and their heads go down. They want to start playing games."
No. 14 Kentucky (10-3) has not been on the court for an actual game since its 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28. By the time the Cats play again, Wednesday night at Rupp Arena against Mississippi State (10-3), 11 days will have passed, one of the longest in-season layoffs in recent UK history. The last time the team had a gap this large between games was Nov. 7 through Nov. 21 following the infamous Gardner Webb loss in the 2007-08 season.
Calipari says he liked having the extra time with this particular squad.
"We like to have a little more time, and when the league moved the schedule back, it was perfect for us," he said. "But we're going to see how it plays out. Maybe it helped us, maybe it didn't. Maybe I wore them out. But we're going to see if this break helped us."
During "Camp Cal," free from classroom obligations and the NCAA-mandated 20-hour practice limit, the Cats worked out twice a day and had some spirited scrimmages. The UK boss described them as "non-stop, up-and-down" affairs.
"This team really needed this, what we just went through," Calipari said. "We went from Christmas night, two-a-days just about every day. We played Louisville and came back and practiced the next day and went two-a-days for a bunch of days.
"It wasn't just the basketball. It was stretching them out mentally, getting them to be together at breakfast and dinners, practices, meetings and films – just bringing them closer. This was a big time. Now, we'll see how it carries over onto the court. You don't know, but they have really responded pretty good."
One focus of the extra practice time was continuing to work on breaking bad habits that the freshman-dominated team brought with them from the high school and AAU ranks. Many of those habits cost UK in narrow losses to Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina.
"We've lost three games, and with three minutes to go in every game we're down one (point)," Calipari said. "We didn't know how to play; didn't know how to finish games; didn't know how to do it together; didn't know how to be a team… We're getting closer to where we want to be, but we're not there yet.
"It just takes time. This is the youngest team I've ever coached, and I've coached young teams. This team's habits, basketball-wise, were far worse than the other team's I've had. They're great kids, now. They just have bad basketball habits."
Among those is learning how to play with – and without – the ball in one's hands.
"One of the things we talked to them about, when you have the ball, you're a passer. When you don't have the ball, think score," Calipari said. "That's a total difference than how they've played. It's been a challenge."
Rick Ray's Mississippi State squad has been a pleasant surprise early in the season. Sophomore guard Craig Sword is one of the SEC's top scorers at 14.3 points per game, and sophomore forward Gavin Ware is averaging 8.9 rebounds while posting five double-doubles.
Calipari described the Bulldogs as "a team that is playing off one another well" and "a team that's going to give you a tough shot and guard you from the 3-point line in."