Two games into SEC play in January, that’s no longer causing the UK boss to lose sleep.
“I've said all along that you don't want to go through a season when you're never in a close game,” Calipari said Monday during the SEC coaches teleconference. “You don't learn about your team. You need to be down 10 or 12 and see how they respond. You need to be in overtime games where they've got to really lock down and be efficient offensively and make free throws or create good shots.
"But enough is enough. We've had enough of these games now. Let's get some games that are a little bit easier for us, but I don't think we'll have any. I think every game we play is someone's Super Bowl. They're going to play out of their minds.”
Cases in point: A pair of 11-point scorers on the season – Ole Miss guard Stefan Moody and Texas A&M guard Danuel House – each went for a career-high 25 points against the Wildcats, who entered last week No. 1 in the nation defensively. Moody may have finished with even more if not for suffering severe cramps late in the game that may have cost the Rebels a shot at a huge upset.
“The kid from Mississippi had cramps and says that you can't have cramps, not at the biggest moment of your life,” Calipari said with astonishment. “Like, what? The biggest moment of your life? But that's how guys feel playing against us, and that's what I'm trying to tell our team. You don't play with desperation and they do, you're losing."
Well, maybe not losing. But UK has certainly lost an aura of invincibility in the last week. The Cats were not the unanimous No. 1 in this week’s AP Top 25 poll, losing two top votes to 15-0 Virginia.
Calipari said the Cats would be seeking a return to form when they returned to the practice floor on Monday afternoon.
“We're gonna have a great team meeting here in a little bit after I'm done and show a little tape and come back this afternoon and practice,” he said. “Have we lost our edge? Have we lost our swagger? Have we lost a little bit of our focus? And then if we have, what was it? What was our swag about? What was our focus about? What was our edge? What gave us an edge? And then the question becomes, how do we get it back? If we lost it, what were reasons we could have lost it?”
Freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns and UK assistant coach Kenny Payne said Monday that regaining the swagger begins on the defensive end of the floor. Prior to league play, UK opponents were shooting 29 percent from the field. Ole Miss and A&M shot 49 and 33 percent, respectively. The Aggies were at 45 percent in the first half before tailing off dramatically.
“First of all, we’ve got to start off defensively,” Towns said. “We were a defensive team. We’ve always been a defensive-stopping team, so we’ve just really got to go back to that. It starts with practice. We’ve got to step up today.
“We’ve got to go back to the defensive standards that we hold ourselves to.”
Payne says more focus and attention to detail will help the Cats regain their defensive mojo. He noted that opposing guards are getting too many “straight-line drives” to the basket, which has negated some of UK’s strong shot-blocking ability.
“Unacceptable,” Payne said.
But there’s no feeling of doubt or panic at the Craft Center. As Calipari noted, “it's not like we're totally… we're still winning tough games and we're fighting like crazy.”
BOOKER NAMED SEC FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK:
After going 7-for-10 from beyond the arc in the first two SEC games of his career, UK freshman guard Devin Booker was named the league’s freshman of the week on Monday.
It marked the second time this season the Grand Rapids, Mich., native has earned the award. Booker scored 13 points against Ole Miss and a team-high 18 against Texas A&M.
He is now shooting an SEC-leading 50 percent (30 of 60) from 3-point range this season and has knocked down 16 of his last 21 from beyond the arc.
On Tuesday, Booker will be facing his father’s alma mater at Rupp Arena. Melvin Booker was the Big 8 Player of the Year in 1994 and a second-team All-American selection.
“This will be a rivalry game for him,” Payne said of the younger Booker.
CATS HAVE RESPECT FOR TIGERS:
Missouri comes to Lexington for the first of two matchups with the Cats this season sporting a 7-8 record and 1-1 mark in the SEC, but Payne said the Tigers have UK’s full attention.
“They’ve played a really tough schedule,” Payne said. “They’re not going to be intimidated of us. We expect them to come out and play one of their best games of the year. They beat a talented LSU team (74-67 in OT), and they’ve played a tough schedule, so we’ve got to go out and play well against them.”
“You can see the fight that they have, that they're not surrendering. They don't have it in their bones,” Calipari said.
KIWI IN KENTUCKY
The Cats are playing host to an international prospect from New Zealand today. Tai Wynyard, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound center in the Class of 2016, was taking a tour of the Craft Center on Monday afternoon prior to UK's practice. He's expected to watch the Cats play Missouri on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, then visiting Villanova and Texas later this week.
The skilled big man played in the International Jordan Brand All-American Game, catching many scouts' eyes.
KENTUCKY FRESHMAN KARL TOWNS...
KENTUCKY ASSISTANT COACH KENNY PAYNE...