The Wildcats lost 72-67 on March 1 to a Gamecocks squad that occupied the SEC cellar at the time, and did so in one of those games where the digits on the scoreboard at night’s end did not accurately reflect the nature of the beating.
They trailed at one point, unthinkably, by 17 points. They shot 26.9 percent from the field, the low point in the John Calipari era at UK. The nearly unwatchable matchup featured a combined 75 free throws. Their bench was assessed three technical fouls, including two for Calipari, who was ejected with 10:25 remaining in the game, although his departure probably had less to do with complaints about officiating and more to do with not being able to stomach watching his lackluster team any longer.
A month later, against all odds, Kentucky had won eight of its last 10 games and found its way into the national championship game.
“I look back on last year, and I’m amazed that we were able to pull it together,” Calipari said Thursday as the No. 1 Wildcats (18-0, 5-0 SEC) prepared for a return trip to Columbia. “I mean, it's not a real big deal… but the reality of it – when I think about what went on – how in the world did we swing it that fast?”
Whatever it was, don’t expect as much drama on the UK side for Saturday’s noon ET tipoff against South Carolina (10-7, 1-4 SEC). But the Cats do expect to get another good challenge from Frank Martin’s Gamecocks.
Throw out the records, Calipari said. “They take on Frank’s personality. They’re balling.”
“Got to be strong with the ball,” the UK boss added. “Got to play through bumps… It’s always a hard game. I can remember 2010 going down there, having our (No. 1) team. You know what, we got outmuscled that game. They roughed us up, and we weren’t able to finish and make plays. Had a chance to try to beat them then. Had a chance last year.”
With a wink and a smile, Calipari claimed that this week was the first time he’s watched the end of last year’s game. He praised the Cats for playing with more fire after he got tossed.
“Might do it again,” he said.
Sophomore point guard Andrew Harrison said Thursday that he didn’t recall much about last year’s game, only that “it was a horrible feeling, and I just remember just having that bad feeling when they rushed the court and stuff like that.”
There was no forgetting, however, his coach’s foul mood that day.
“I mean, I would have tossed him too,” Harrison said. “He was frustrated just like the rest of us.”
Calipari has a more experienced, deeper team this year, but he concedes there are some similarities to last year’s club. One of them is finding the right buttons to push on the offensive end of the floor. The Cats have not been as efficient in recent games as they were earlier in the season. UK has shot under 50 percent from the field in five of its last six games.
“When I figured out what the issue was (last season), and the two or three things I had to do as a coach, then I was comfortable,” he said. “I’m still not sure, offensively, how we need to play at times with this group. We’re going to try some new stuff today.”