STARKVILLE, Miss. – John Calipari estimated last week that his fifth-ranked Kentucky basketball team was still a month away from turning into a bona fide national championship contender. He changed his tune after Tuesday night’s 88-81 escape at Mississippi State.
“We may be two months away,” Calipari said. “We go into the AAU mode. When you’re playing all freshmen and sophomores, there’s a point in the game that they just think it’s like, ‘OK, watch this.’ You’re never going to be that team if that’s what your mindset is.”
To the coach’s point, his young Wildcats (16-2, 6-0 SEC) didn’t sound like they fully understand his message even after watching an 18-point lead shrivel to three against the Bulldogs. Instead, point guard De’Aaron Fox and forward Wenyen Gabriel, who combined for 34 points and most of the clutch plays in this one, rushed to the defense of their fellow freshman, Malik Monk.
Kentucky’s leading scorer and king of the highlight reel, Monk played an objectively awful game Tuesday. After what Calipari called one of his best pregame shoot-arounds – and even a little playful banter with Mississippi State’s rowdy student section – it looked like Monk was trying too hard once the ball went up at Humphrey Coliseum.
He took bad shot after bad shot, hitting just 5 of 14 (and none of his three 3-pointers), committed five turnovers and drew a technical foul for hanging on the rim that helped the Bulldogs rally. And yet …
“He’s still the second-leading scorer on our team this game,” Gabriel said. Monk managed to get 14 points, 4 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal. “If that’s a bad game, that’s good.”
Calipari still has some explaining to do.
“Scorers have off nights,” Fox said. “It’s happened before and then he comes back with a big game. I’m not worried about it. I tell Malik, ‘Keep shooting.’ I would hope that no Kentucky fan, nobody that has Kentucky across their chest, would tell him to stop shooting. If you stop shooting, you can’t make any shots. When he gets hot, he goes off.”
But when he’s off, the Wildcats go thud. He wasn’t alone Tuesday, as Kentucky committed 24 fouls and 16 turnovers – both second-most this season – and let Mississippi State shoot 54.2 percent from the field.
That Kentucky won despite all of that is “incredible for us,” Calipari said. “We’re still leaving timeouts and guys are doing exactly the opposite of what (he says). That’s who we are right now.”
The Wildcats, who won their first three SEC games by an average of 30 points, have gotten late scares in each of the last three. Vanderbilt, Auburn and now the Bulldogs tested Kentucky’s toughness and poise. There is plenty of positive in the fact that a team starting four freshmen has found a way to win every time.
Calipari can appreciate all that, “but again, we just have a long way to go,” he said, and the only way to truly drive home his point is with playing time. He told the team at halftime Tuesday that freelancers would quickly join him on the bench.
“I’ve got to do more of that,” he said. “If you break down, you’re not focused on what we’re doing as a team, then you can’t be in there and we’ll win without you. That’s where we gotta go.”
Calipari said he had to coach every dribble of the basketball in the final nine minutes of Saturday’s slugfest with Auburn, something he hadn’t done since his mid-30s. It was so exhausting, he went home and promptly passed out. Doesn’t that worry him, a reporter asked Tuesday night, as the NCAA Tournament draws ever nearer?
“Well then you’re basically saying their will is stronger than my will,” Calipari said, grinning devilishly, “and you know me pretty well.”