Better late is line on UK confidence
Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011 4:27 pm
By: By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
Kentucky coach John Calipari has tried all season to get his team to loosen up and just play basketball.
The process took longer than he expected. A lot longer.
Not that he’s complaining. Not anymore at least.
The surging 15th-ranked Wildcats (22-8) enter the Southeastern Conference tournament in their typical spot as one of the teams to beat, a position hard to fathom as recently as two weeks ago when they lost on the road at Arkansas.
Yet a narrow 68-66 win over Vanderbilt on March 1 and a gritty triumph on the road at Tennessee on Sunday has given Kentucky a much-needed confidence boost as it looks to defend its conference tournament title.
“I didn’t give up on this team, I believed in this team,” Calipari said.
And now the Wildcats seem to believe in each other. The final three games of the regular season allowed Kentucky to reverse a couple of troubling trends.
They were 0-6 in games decided by five points or less before nipping the Commodores. They’d lost six of seven road games in conference play before spoiling Senior Day at Tennessee.
Kentucky trailed the Volunteers by seven at halftime, then rallied and grabbed the last 11 rebounds of the game to win going away.
Calipari has chastised his young, thin team for cowering when the game is on the line. Against the Commodores and Volunteers, the Wildcats did all the little things right.
Freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones made 7 of 8 free throws in the final 1:36 to help Kentucky edge Vanderbilt. Against Tennessee, the Vols drew within 59-56 with 2:11 to play. But the Wildcats grabbed three offensive rebounds on their next possession leading to a pair of clinching free throws by Knight.
The wins have proved cathartic, and with no true road games left on the schedule, Calipari has watched his team relax. Kentucky is 18-1 this year in games played at home or on a neutral floor.
Calipari also plans to give his team a history lesson on what it takes to win in the postseason.
“I’m going to give them some things my best teams (did), what we drove into them ... and see if we can get in that frame of mind,” he said. “There’s only one way to do that. You have to have more fun than everybody else and you have to stay in the moment.”
Something that has been difficult at times. The shadow of last year’s team — a 35-3 club that produced five NBA first-round draft picks — has loomed all season.
Now it appears the Wildcats are ready to step out of it. Jones was selected as the SEC’s Freshman of the Year by the league’s coaches on Tuesday, and Knight’s continued development led Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings to compare him favorably to former Kentucky star John Wall.
Knight’s steady leadership has provided the Wildcats with a foundation to build around. It appears his teammates are starting to catch up.
Forward Darius Miller is playing the best basketball of his three-year career. Guard DeAndre Liggins has rediscovered the tenacity that makes him one of the SEC’s best defenders.
Even the little-used bench is producing. Reserve center Eloy Vargas drew raves from Calipari for three critical points and one emphatic block against the Volunteers.
“I think they’re slowly understanding that if they recognize (their weaknesses), they can change,” he said. “If they do what they’re supposed to do, their game elevates and so does ours. I wish we had won a couple of those road games, but it’s all just a test. It’s a lesson.”
One the Wildcats think they’ve finally learned.
“Going to Tennessee and playing in a tough environment and playing a great team like that, we had a rough first half and we came out with a victory,” Harrellson said. “That just shows how much confidence and maturity we had. I hope we can carry that over to neutral-site games too.”