EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a new weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — A funny thing happened after Kentucky basketball bludgeoned rival Louisville by 29 points on Friday and came from behind to beat a solid Georgia team on Sunday: The Wildcats dropped a spot, from No. 16 to No. 17, in The Associated Press poll.
A funnier thing happened after freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went wild in both of those games, delivering a total of 45 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 steals and 2 turnovers: He didn’t win SEC Freshman or Player of the Week.
A predictable thing happened after both of those snubs: John Calipari, who has been saying for weeks that his players haven’t gotten enough attention nationally, made damn sure the team heard all about it.
“I just want them to know: ‘You’re not getting the respect, but that means you’re going to have to earn it. You haven’t gotten it yet,'” the coach said Tuesday, on the eve of Kentucky’s first true road game of the season. “I just said, ‘Look, if we go to LSU and they beat us by 40, then [UK skeptics] were right. If we go down there and win, well then maybe they’re not right.’ It probably won’t change things, but we’ll have to keep proving what we are — and we basically haven’t.”
There is so much right about what Calipari said there. First of all, it is a brilliant, Nick Saban-esque move to use things that he could not possibly care less about (January media polls and weekly conference awards) to prod his young team. They think you stink! You’ll show them!
“Cal brought that up,” point guard Quade Green said. “It bothers us [but] we just gotta fight harder now. That gives us motivation.”
Secondly, there is at least some acknowledgement from Calipari that Kentucky (11-2) has not, in fact, really proved much yet. While it was an impressive and encouraging three days for the Wildcats to close out 2017, the fact remains their two best wins are at home against Virginia Tech and Louisville, the No. 40 and 42 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced statistical ratings.
They’ve played two decent teams away from home — Kansas and UCLA — and lost to both on neutral courts. Calipari knows this, and he started to acknowledge it and leave it at that, but then he put back on his motivational speaker hat.
“Our schedule is a top-20 schedule, so it’s not who we played,” Calipari said. “It’s that people watch us and really don’t think we’re that good. I said [to the team], ‘Either they don’t think you guys are that good or they don’t think I can coach. Or how about this one? Maybe it’s both: They don’t think I can coach or you can play.'”
He grinned as he recreated this conversation for the media on Tuesday, then shared his parting thought to the players.
“So just use it as fuel,” Calipari said.
The Wildcats, who start five freshmen, will need it over the next week. In that span, they’ll visit LSU (9-3), which already has top-50 wins over Michigan and Houston, and No. 23 Tennessee (9-3), which has beaten 13th-ranked Purdue and three ACC teams, before coming home to host No. 11 Texas A&M (11-2).
Kentucky, which actually climbed one spot (15 to 14) in the coaches poll, will embark on that gauntlet with a perceived slight in its heart — planted there by sportswriters who might only halfway be paying attention and a clever coach.
“That’s definitely crazy. There’s not really any words for it. We just have to go out and prove ourselves,” sophomore forward Tai Wynyard said of the Cats’ AP ranking. “There’s nothing you can say to fix that. I’d say just blow people out by 50. That’s kind of what we gotta do here.
“No, but just keep playing our game and keep winning. They’re not going to be able to keep dropping us if we just keep winning.”