Gary B. Graves AP Sports Writer
January 7, 2014
LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky coach John Calipari made sure his young Wildcats spent a lot of time together over Christmas break improving weaknesses on offense and defense, while becoming more cohesive.
Calipari’s hope is that the No. 14 Wildcats (10-3) are so tired of seeing him and each other in practice that they take out their aggression on Mississippi State (10-3) in Wednesday night’s Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
“I’m ready to see some new faces on the court,” Kentucky freshman guard Andrew Harrison said Tuesday. “I wouldn’t say I’m sick of (practice) and it’s not over, but it’s going to be fun to get out there and play against some new competition.”
Kentucky hasn’t played since beating No. 12 Louisville 73-66 on Dec. 28. The Wildcats now want to apply what they learned about passing, setting picks and defensive stances to the most important part of the season against a conference determined to humble their talented roster.
First up are the Bulldogs, who have won five of six and have matched last year’s win total.
“It was really good for us as a team on the court and off the court to learn about each other spend more time together,” Harrison’s twin brother, Aaron, said. “I’m excited to get league play started. (The) SEC is great basketball, so I’m ready just to get everything going.”
Calipari has consistently said that one of his biggest challenges with this highly praised freshmen class has been breaking bad habits from high school, particularly with their mental and physical approach to defense.
An ongoing process on offense is getting them to pass first instead of shoot when they have the ball and figuring how to create shots as they look for passes.
“It flips (the script) on them how they’ve always played,” Calipari said. “The way they’ve played, and this is every high school player, is ‘I am going to score this ball and if I can’t score it, I’m going to throw it to you. But before I do, I’m going to take one more look to see if I can score this thing.’
“The other way is, ‘I have it, I’m a passer and when I don’t have it, I’m down ready to score now.’ … They’re making strides. It’s just getting them to think different.”
To that end the coach used team bonding off the court with the goal of team building on it.
The Wildcats’ extended break included regular team meals and outings around practice twice a day. Calipari has seen players grow closer and communicate more little by little, glimpses of which appeared down the stretch against Louisville.
Despite playing most of the second half without leading scorer Julius Randle (leg cramps), Kentucky stayed together and held off the Cardinals for their first win over a top-25 team in four tries. Calipari has been trying to get the Wildcats to remember everything they did to seal that game and carry it over to SEC play.
“The Louisville game definitely opened our eyes that everyone has to play hard, play together and buy in to win,” Aaron Harrison said. “That really helped our team confidence and all around.”
Kentucky’s next step is enhancing its self-esteem against MSU, which hasn’t played the strongest schedule but is ahead of last season’s pace under second-year coach Rick Ray.
Among the Bulldogs’ victories is a 66-53 defeat of Florida Gulf Coast, which is nothing like last year’s surprise team that reached the NCAA tournament round of 16 yet was significant for an MSU squad with just eight scholarship players. Five players scored in double figures in that game with sophomore guard Craig Sword (14.3 points per game, 57 percent field goal shooting) leading the way.
The Bulldogs are coming off Thursday’s 77-63 victory over Maryland Eastern Shore, highlighted by a career-best 16 rebounds from sophomore forward Gavin Ware (11.2 points, 8.9 rebounds).
Ray believes his team will have to work harder on the boards against Kentucky’s taller lineup, saying, “you can get a stop, but it’s not a stop unless you get the rebound.”
Sword went even further, adding, “we’re just going to have to buckle down and play defense. We’ve got to compete on every possession.”