LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari didn’t want his young Kentucky basketball team to do anything stupid, which is why he sprinted all the way out to the free-throw line Saturday night after the second scuffle between the Wildcats and visiting Arkansas.
“Games are going to get heated. They’re going to get testy. We do not respond,” he said. “You put your arms up and you walk away.”
But Kentucky didn’t always follow that order against the Razorbacks, and there’s a part of Calipari that likes that.
When Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford bowled over Isaiah Briscoe and then stepped on him while Briscoe was still on the ground, freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox went chest-to-chest with Barford. Both drew technical fouls. When Hogs big man Moses Kingsley clobbered freshman forward Bam Adebayo in the head, the latter had to be restrained, resulting first in Calipari and then Arkansas coach Mike Anderson racing onto the court.
And not long after Malik Monk took a shot to the midsection – not one of the 31 fouls called on Arkansas – UK’s very animated strength coach was ejected from the game.
“Let me say this: My team won’t be bullied. This isn’t that kind of team,” Calipari said after the Cats seemed to feed off the feistiness on the way to a 97-71 blowout. “It gets you more focused, sharper and more disciplined. That’s what good teams are. You’re not going to bully us into a loss. That’s not who these kids (are). They’ll fight back.”
For a team starting four freshmen and a sophomore, that’s an encouraging sign. While Calipari wants to rein in the intensity just enough to avoid any actual fights, he loves having a team with an edge. It helps to have 6-foot-10, 260-pound Adebayo on their side.
“We’re not backing down from anybody,” Adebayo said. “Nobody’s going to punk us. We’re all willing to go to bat for each other, and that’s what we stand by. That’s all of us, though. If (Isaiah Briscoe) is behind me, that gives me courage to puff my chest out, because I’m not just standing by myself. I got people in my corner.”
Fox admits it’s easier to be a tough guy when the hulking Adebayo or brawny Briscoe is just a few feet away – “you see how big those guys are,” he said, laughing — but the Wildcats are also trying to send a message to veteran teams trying to intimidate them.
“Just because guys have been in college longer, they’ve had the weight room longer, they have the bodies for the college game, and sometimes they’ll think freshmen aren’t ready to play hard and ready to bang,” Fox said. “Some scouting reports are just be physical with a younger team, but we’re just showing teams that we can play play physically, too. You see those guys and everybody’s big, and it’s different from the high school game, but I think we’ve adjusted to the physicality. I think we’ve been playing well through it.”
Senior forward Derek Willis, who went for 15 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks in a resurgent game against the Hogs, has been around long enough to know that taking a team’s best shot is simply “part of being the Mecca of college basketball.” There’s an adjustment period for freshmen to understand that, and sixth-ranked Kentucky (13-2, 3-0 SEC) has been stung by it twice.
“People, when they come in here, they want to have a big night. They’re always ready to play you,” he said. “So if you don’t match their energy, it’s going to be a bad night for you, because that means a lot to the player you’re going up against.”
But these kiddy Cats are quickly learning, and Willis likes what he sees. They’re standing their ground and then some.
“I think it’s needed,” Willis said. “I’ve had teammates in the past and they’d be, I guess I would say, like jerks. They kind of had this bad attitude to them, but it kind of did help our team out in the long run. Everybody was held to their standard. If you didn’t do something right, I knew that person was going to be on me, so I was like, ‘I’m going to do my job so I don’t have to hear from this kid.’ With our team, all of our players, they’ll go up against anyone, any day.”