“We're just trying to keep these guys engaged… physically working, mentally working,” Calipari said during Monday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “Kids have been great. They're responding. We're getting closer to having every player be the best version of themselves, and we're really focused on that more than anything else that we're doing.”
Later, on his weekly radio show, the UK boss detailed some of the things he’s seeking from certain players:
* Willie Cauley-Stein – “Willie’s done some nice things, but he’s been in and out. There were plays (in the 110-75 win over Auburn) where I said why didn’t you go after balls that he could have gotten. But, again, you’re up 30 and you’ve got guys pushing on you a little bit, you say, ‘That’s not that big of a deal.’ You just don’t want those to be habits.”
* Dakari Johnson – “What does Dakari look like when he’s at his best? Flying up and down that court, sitting down in the post, catching it tight and not bouncing it. Right? Bounce it and bounce it and get it blocked. No. Quick to the rim. How good did he look (against Auburn) when he caught those balls (and went straight to the rim)?
* Karl-Anthony Towns – “Now Karl, physically, is 16 or 17 years old. He just doesn’t have the weight, so he starts pushing with his upper body. Those are all going to be offensive fouls. When he sits down in the post, it’s hard (for the opponent). (He’s at his best) when he goes to that jump hook right or turns middle jump shot or picks and slips, gets fouled, makes free throws.”
* Andrew and Aaron Harrison – “When Andrew’s at his best, he’s in that lane. Every time you turn around, he’s in the lane again. That’s when he’s at his best. He had nine assists (against Auburn). His brother (Aaron), it’s the same thing. You don’t have to run plays. Get to that elbow. Get those pull-up jumpers. Don’t settle for 3s. Don’t drive baseline, drive middle because you can create that 3 for Tyler (Ulis) – that time he drove middle with his left hand and kicks it out.”
* Trey Lyles – “Dominate the rebounding. Fly up and down that court. Score around the rim. Make those 15-footers that you make. Defend. Stay in front of people. Hard pressure.”
* Tyler Ulis – “Just running us. Get that ball moving, the easy pass. You don’t need look-aways.”
* Marcus Lee – “Bouncing, effort, energy, block shots, dunk balls, fly up and down the court. That’s him at his best.”
Calipari said the Bulldogs (12-15, 5-9 SEC) have played better than their record indicates and expressed admiration for the coaching job Rick Ray has done in Starkville.
“They had Mississippi down 10. They had a chance to win the game,” he noted. “They had Arkansas down at the half, had a chance to win the game… When I've watched his team, I'm amazed at how hard they're playing, how in sync they are with each other.
“You have to understand, when (Ray) took over, that thing was not in great shape. And it has taken time, but he's building a culture and it's being built on work and defense and rebounding and toughness. That's how you begin the process of taking that program where he wants it to go.”
ONCE A CAT, ALWAYS A CAT:
Former Kentucky Wildcat Kyle Wiltjer was named National Player of the Week for the second time this season coming off a two-game performance which saw him post 61 points and 19 rebounds in wins over Pacific and St. Mary’s for Gonzaga (28-1).
On Monday, the 6-foot-10 forward got congratulatory texts and Twitter messages from Calipari as well as a mention from the UK boss leading off his weekly radio show.
“How ‘bout Kyle Wiltjer?” Calipari said. “Player of the week. Had 45 in a game (against Pacific)… We went back and forth texting each other today. I’m proud of him and really happy for him. He’s a great kid. Great family. And, you know, for all of us here, if you’re about these kids, we’ve all got to feel this way.”
As a junior, Wiltjer is averaging 17.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists for the Bulldogs to emerge as a national player of the year candidate. He sat out last season after transferring from UK, where he was a prominent member of the 2012 national championship squad as a freshman. Playing time, however, became more dubious with the Cats as Calipari continued to reel in one top-rated recruiting class after another and Wiltjer’s lack of athleticism and defensive ability seemed to push him further down the rotation.
Said Calipari: “Look, it didn’t work out here – in his mind; I wish he had stayed – but, you know what, now that you look at it, maybe he did the right thing for him and his family. You gotta be good with that.”
Wiltjer, a fan favorite during his time in Lexington, has received a wave of positive tweets from UK fans across the country.
“You know our fans don’t stop,” Calipari said. “You put on that (UK) uniform, you’re there for life.”
For the first time this season, Kentucky was the unanimous choice for No. 1 in both the AP and USA Today Coaches polls on Monday. The AP poll saw the Cats collect all 65 first-place votes, followed by Virginia, Gonzaga, Duke and Wisconsin. In the USA Today poll, UK landed all 27 first-place votes, followed by Gonzaga, Virginia, Wisconsin at Duke.
Seasons like the one Kentucky is currently experiencing seem to go by in the blink of an eye, as noted by Calipari on Monday.
"We got two weeks left in the regular season," he said. "Can you imagine? We have four (regular season) games left. How fast has this season gone? You still remember us being in the Bahamas... It's crazy.
"I don't want this season to end."
It's been a stark contrast from the mood surrounding the Cats last season. Calipari was not only dealing with a young team that had lost nine regular season games after opening the year No. 1 in the polls - severeely testing his patience - but also an aching hip that required replacement surgery in the off-season.
That team pulled it together when March Madness rolled around and fought all the way to the national championship game, but getting there was one of the most improbable runs in the program's storied history.