ATHENS, Ga. — It’s only Jan. 25, but this year’s Kentucky team has already done something that last year’s John Calipari squad couldn’t do: win more than two games on the road in the Southeastern Conference.
UK improved to 3-0 in the league away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena with a 57-44 victory in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday night. The 2010-11 team stumbled to a 2-6 mark.
Under those circumstances, one would think the win in a hostile environment in Athens, Ga., would call for some sort of modest self-appreciation, but the Wildcats will get no such luck on this year’s team. The way Calipari talked Tuesday, a No. 1 ranking and the team’s 12th straight victory is all a moot point if the Wildcats don’t get better and bow out early come tournament time in March.
“Everybody has got to do what they’re capable of doing,” Calipari said. “We’re not asking for anything more.”
Last year’s team was floundering at this point in the season, but the Cats regrouped and went on to win the SEC Tournament and earn a trip to the Final Four. This team appears to be well ahead of the 2011-12 squad, but Calipari won’t settle for what they’ve accomplished so far because the ceiling is potentially higher.
“Last year’s team I couldn’t believe we were as good as we were so I didn’t have to say a whole lot,” Calipari said. “This year’s team, we could be really special and we’re not right now. That’s part of it.”
Part of it’s that, part of it was an ugly second half.
Despite the impressive win, the Cats struggled to score in the second half in Stegeman Coliseum. UK managed just four points over a 10-minute stretch after halftime and was held to 19 points, its lowest total in a half this season.
Kentucky was never in danger of losing, but Calipari, who earlier in the week said his team may need to “take one on the chin” and lose a game to learn how to be tough, saw a lot of room for improvement.
“You could tell I wasn’t happy with some stuff,” Calipari said. “And I wasn’t happy because, again, we weren’t talking. They got layups because we had two guys come together and didn’t speak to each other. ‘Well, I thought he was going to stay and … ‘Come on, man, just talk. Just say, ‘I got him. You got him. Help me.’ Again, we’re into our own thing right now and you’re can’t be a special team and be that way.”
When Coach Cal spoke to his team in the postgame locker room, he told the players to enjoy the victory and acknowledged how tough it is to win on the road.
But don’t think that’s a pass to let up now.
“I told them I’m not changing,” Calipari said. “I’m happy we won, I’m happy with how guys played, but I want you even better. That’s how I’m coaching them right now.”
Asked if time is drawing short to be “special,” Calipari dismissed the notion.
“I’ve had teams where you get to February, middle of February where we kick in,” Coach Cal said. “Again, this isn’t football. The greatest thing, you can lose three in a row and still win the national title in this game, so the biggest thing is let’s step this thing up.”
Calipari’s mentality of good but not good enough is a mentality that teams need in order to win a national championship, senior guard Darius Miller said.
“I don’t know if he’s ever told us we’ve played great or perfect,” Miller said. “That’s impossible but that’s what he’s striving for. He wants us all to play perfect games, that way we can win a national championship. That’s our goal and that’s what we expect him to say to us.
“It’s a very tough road. You’ve got to play a lot of good teams and you can’t have letdowns like we had in the second half (against Georgia). I understand where’s he’s coming from. It was a long road, a tough for us last year, so we’ve got to continue to get better.”