LEXINGTON, Ky. — It is often painful to watch John Calipari coach his team right now. Exhausting at best. He almost never sits down, instead storming up and down the sideline, gyrating and howling, stomping and snorting, whirling and pleading.
As Kentucky managed to turn a 21-point, second-half lead into a needlessly stressful 70-62 win over Troy on Monday night, the Tasmanian devilish Calipari looked like he might bore his way right through the hardwood at Rupp Arena.
“I had to battle them too much in the second half,” he said afterward. “I’ve got to teach them how to win.”
Then he launched into the latest version of the same speech he’s been giving fans since this summer, which boils down to: Settle in. This is going to be a long, often ugly process. And yes, he says something sort of like that every season thanks to unprecedented roster turnover at Kentucky, but he means longer and uglier than usual this time.
And it’s already testing the patience of a coach who has been trying to remind himself to remain positive.
“He tries to sit back and let us play, but sometimes he has to step up and put his foot down,” sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. “He had to. He was loud [in the second half Monday]. It was almost like he was in the Kansas game again, Cal over there yelling and stuff. But he’s just trying to challenge us to be good.”
Despite its ranking (eighth in the Associated Press poll) and its record (4-1), Kentucky is not particularly good right now. But the Wildcats, who’ve started five freshmen every game this season, flirted with being good for a little more than a half.
They led by 16 at intermission, when they had only 4 turnovers, were plus-15 on the glass and held the Trojans to 29 percent shooting. That lead grew to 21 barely 2 minutes into the second half. Just when Kentucky was revving its engine, however, the darn thing stalled.
The Wildcats, whose half-court offense continues to be a mess, turned it over a 11 times in the final 18 minutes and only made one field goal — in 10 tries — over the last 8 minutes. They also missed the front end of two 1-and-1s at the line in the final minute.
Calipari, stomping around the sideline for the entire second half, looked like a man trying to find the gas pedal again.
“For 20 minutes, man, I thought we were good,” he said, later revising it to great. But he knew what was coming. A team this young, “they will revert, they let go, they go back to their old ways. And that’s the fight. Whether it’s going to take a loss to a team that we should beat and they all get together and say, ‘We gotta stop,’ I don’t know.
“You just don’t have let-downs when you’re up 21 and you’re ready to bury somebody and you just start acting like it doesn’t matter anymore. That’s old AAU, high school stuff.”
To be fair, most of his key players were in high school just a few months ago. Viewed that way, it was impressive that point guard Quade Green and forward Kevin Knox combined for 30 points on 12-of-22 shooting in their fifth college game. And that Nick Richards rebounded from a rough start to his career with 8 points and 8 rebounds Monday.
“That’s something we can build off, definitely,” said Gabriel, who had 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks but was also guilty of a few selfish plays that have defined UK’s disjointed offense thus far. “Our focus disappeared. I know Cal’s going to say that’s what young teams do and we’ve got to stop letting go of the rope. That’s one of the things we’ve got to work on if we want to be a championship team.”