Calipari Asking for More Even as Streak Reaches 10
John Calipari was so certain Kentucky was in for a stiff test he changed the Wildcats’ game-day routine.
Expecting a motivated opponent in Mississippi State and recalling two of UK’s three losses have come in games like Saturday’s with a noon local time tip, Coach Cal summoned his team for a 7:30 a.m. CT shoot-around.
“I never do that,” Calipari said. “I knew how hard this game was going to be.”
For 20 minutes, it appeared Coach Cal was wrong as UK delivered an impressive first-half performance. Calipari, however, doubled down.
“Coach told us when we came back from half they were going to go for like two or three runs,” Ashton Hagans said. “We just had to stay with them, regroup and stay focused and see what we could do.”
A week after UK completed double-digit comeback at Florida, Mississippi State seemed intent on doing the same to the Cats. Up as much as 18 points early in the second half, the Cats went cold and the Bulldogs did the opposite. The hosts closed to within one point with 8:41 left and three in the final 90 seconds, but No. 5/5 Kentucky (20-3, 9-1 SEC) managed to hold on for a 71-67 win at No. RV/21 Mississippi State (16-7, 4-6 SEC).
“I like the fact that we hung on, and they didn’t stop,” Calipari said. “They were making plays and shots and drives. They were not playing scared at all.”
PJ Washington certainly wasn’t scared when he scored inside to steady the ship when the lead was down to one with just over eight minutes left. Neither was Keldon Johnson when he scored six straight to bring UK’s lead back to 10 nor Tyler Herro when he beat the shot clock for a contested 3 after State had again trimmed the lead to four with 2:59 left.
In spite of all that, Coach Cal wasn’t exactly in a jolly mood in the postgame locker room. He praised the Cats for the way they closed, but didn’t hold his tongue about the things he knows they will have to improve before the games truly count. UK might be on a 10-game winning streak and in good NCAA Tournament position after being tabbed the top overall two seed in Saturday’s Bracket Preview Special, but Coach Cal is far from satisfied.
“I’m not worried about anything except coaching my team and helping these guys get better, and holding them accountable,” Calipari said. “I held them accountable after the game. I told them, ‘It’s a great win.’ But believe me, I went right around the room. I said, ‘If you want me to tell you everything is all good, it isn’t.’ “
Take EJ Montgomery for example.
The freshman, coming off the best game of his college career, played quality minutes down the stretch as Washington and Reid Travis dealt with foul trouble. He had seven rebounds, including a crucial offensive board in the final minute to allow UK to kill time with a 3-point lead. Montgomery also passed on an open 3 on the ensuing sequence, which is what drew Coach Cal’s postgame attention.
“The thing about this game: Whether we won or we lost, we have another game,” Calipari said. “In March, oh, it’s a little different. So you might as well build your confidence.”
Washington’s confidence is undoubtedly at an all-time high. A 23-point outing at Mississippi State marked the fifth time he has scored 20-plus in his last six games after he had only four such games prior to this stretch, but Calipari believes he has more in the tank.
“He didn’t play bad,” Calipari said. “I think he’s the best player in the country, but not like he played today. Doesn’t go get rebounds, doesn’t get loose balls, missed one-footers, missed every free throw. What? Come on. If you’re the best, play that way.”
In that sense, Washington is a lot like his team. Washington and Kentucky are playing better than they ever have, drawing national praise and establishing themselves among college basketball’s elite. But for Calipari, it’s not enough.
That’s why Washington and his teammates came to Kentucky, right?
“You’re looking at me like, ‘Why do you torture these kids?’ ” Calipari said. “Because my job is to get them to be uncomfortable, make themselves uncomfortable so they play comfortable when they’re uncomfortable.”