Perhaps the nation’s most outspoken critic of conference tournaments and the minimal basketball benefits they provide to a team like the Wildcats, Calipari would much rather just push the fast forward button on the SEC Tournament and get on with the Big Dance next week.
Those feelings are magnified with No. 1 Kentucky (31-0) thinking bigger picture, but Calipari, as he frequently does, is trying to put a positive spin on it.
”I have one concern, my team playing well,” said the UK boss, whose team will face Florida (16-16) at 1 p.m. ET on Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals. The Gators advanced with a 69-61 win Thursday over Alabama.
“If that’s not good enough,” Calipari continued, “then you go back and you get ready for the (NCAA) tournament. They were great in practice. They have a great spirit about them. Any team in this tournament is good enough to beat us. The question, ‘Will we play at our best?’ (And if we do) it will make it hard for anyone to beat us.”
Calipari returned to his familiar refrain of asking each individual player to take his game to another level now that the postseason has begun.
One player in particular, junior center/forward Willie Cauley-Stein, is being counted on to lead.
”We feed off him,” Calipari said. “He’s that one guy that can do stuff a normal player can’t do, and he hasn’t been doing it (in recent games). He’s been getting scored on, he’s missing a lot of shots just by – they’re physical with him, and he’s not balanced coming back. But I think he’ll be fine.”
Are there others?
“We have some guys that are playing better than they’ve ever played in their life, and now the question is as you go into these last few weeks, you talk about how do you add 2 or 3 percent to your game?” Calipari said.
“And I’ll give you an example: Trey Lyles’ 2 or 3 percent may be flying up and down the court. Just go a little harder and attacking the backboard rebounding just a little bit harder. Aaron (Harrison) may be attacking the basket, not settling. Will you be a defensive playmaker on every possession? Can you notch it up 2 or 3 percent? The same with Andrew (Harrison). So each guy has their own little thing that they can do a little bit better at, and that’s what we’re trying to get them to think in terms of. How do you grow a little bit now as we wind this thing down?”
He pointed to Darius Miller’s surge just before UK’s 2012 championship run as an example of what can happen when a player turns it up a notch.
“Darius went to that next level, which is why we won the whole thing,” he said. “But I want everybody to walk in here walking away from this tournament feeling good about who they are, what they can be and what we can be. Like, wow, if we’re all doing our thing we can be pretty good.”
Calipari’s two goals for the weekend: get better and give the Big Blue Nation a good show.
“I told them, let’s have a ball for the fans, let our fans know that we’re here doing this for you and we’re going to have fun and play as hard as we can,” he said. “We can’t guarantee you that we’ll win, but we understand that fans (who) can’t get in Rupp Arena come here.”
Asked if the younger Cats understand just how many UK fans will descend upon Nashville this weekend, Calipari said: “They’ll see it if they don’t know. When we walk into the game they’ll be like, ‘What in the world is this?’
“… I think they’re crazy, but I’ve said it before. They’re nuts. But it makes them what they are, and they’re passionate about letting everybody know, ‘I’m a Kentucky fan.’”