Kentucky is on the verge of claiming its 45th regular-season Southeastern Conference championship.
The Wildcats can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a win at Mississippi State on Tuesday. Couple that victory with a Florida loss and UK will own the outright title and No. 1 overall seed in the SEC Tournament with three games to go.
It’s all a minor storyline for John Calipari’s team as it gears up for the final leg of the regular season, essentially a tune-up for the time of the year that Kentucky and its fans really measure success: the postseason.
“I don’t want them focused on winning and losing,” Coach Cal said Monday. “I just want them focused on playing harder than the opponent and let’s just try to get better every game.”
Whether it’s the “white out” Mississippi State has planned, the pursuit of SEC perfection or the return of former Bulldog Twany Beckham, Tuesday’s 9 p.m. showdown at Humphrey Coliseum will offer plenty of opportunities, er, distractions from doing just that.
What better time for Coach Cal to turn inward and focus on his players’ mindsets as the distractions of the postseason, the pressure of being the No. 1 team in the country and the expectations of the NCAA Tournament loom.
What: No. 1/1 UK (26-1, 12-0 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (19-8, 6-6 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Humphrey Coliseum (11,000)
Game notes: UK | Mississippi State
Video interviews: Cal, Wiltjer and Kidd-Gilchrist
Record: 19-8, 6-6 in SEC
Head coach: Rick Stansbury (292-160 at Mississippi State)
Player to watch: Arnette Moultrie (16.5 points, 10.8 rebounds)
Series history: UK leads 87-20
Last meeting: UK won 85-79 in Feb. 15, 2011
“I’m coaching their minds right now,” Calipari said. “I’ve coached their bodies two, three weeks ago, like conditioning and toughness. Now we’re coaching minds, trying to get them in a great frame of mind as an individual and as a team.”
With four games left in the regular season, Calipari said he is pulling back the reins physically and tightening up his grip psychologically.
“I’m talking about swagger right now,” Coach Cal said. “I said there is only one place to develop swagger and that’s in that (practice) building. You walk out knowing you’re going to play well. It doesn’t matter how you play at the beginning of the game. You know over the course of the game I’m going to play well because I deserve to and I’ve worked at it and I’m prepared to play well. Swagger is developed in there. Ego is we just beat this team by a ton, they’re not ranked, we should beat them, I’m hungry, what time is the meal, and then you get beat.”
Developing an ego would be an easy trap for a team that’s 27-1 and won 18 games in a row, so Calipari is doing his best to prevent it.
Three weeks ago the attention was on conditioning and getting physically tougher, whereas now it’s on “fresh legs and fresh minds.”
“I’m not meaning this toward anybody else, but there are 100 ways to do this,” Coach Cal said. “There are guys that go three-and-a-half hours (at practice) right now. That’s what they do and they’re doing it now, and they win and they do fine. There are coaches who go live right now and they go at each other the whole time. They’re not worried about anything (else). This is who we are.
“And then there are other guys that back up. There are some guys that do nothing live right now. Everything is conditioning and being sharp. There are 1,000 ways to do this. We back up right now. Now we do go live some, but I try to keep as little body to body as we can right now.”
Calipari learned to loosen his grip this time of the year from his longtime friend and mentor Larry Brown, who encouraged Coach Cal to become more of a “cheerleader” at the end of the season than a coach or disciplinarian.
“You’ve got to back up and be there,” Calipari said. “That’s his thing to me all the time at the end of the year, ‘You be their cheerleader. There’s no changing them now. They are what they are, cheer them on.’ ”
Cheering, coaching or leading, whatever Calipari’s done at this time of the year, it’s worked. He’s 32-13 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, including three Final appearances.
Is zone up Cal’s sleeve?
Coach Cal has never been big on using a zone. He’s used it in small doses during his three years at Kentucky, and the appearances usually tend to be more experimental than long-term solutions.
But heading into this season, given the length and the athleticism of this squad, Calipari said in the preseason that he may use zone more. He went as far as to say that this may be a “zone team.”
If it is, he must be saving it for the NCAA Tournament.
Sticking to his traditional defensive approach, Kentucky has been a straight man-to-man team for almost the entire season en route to the nation’s best defensive field-goal percentage (36.2). UK is 10th in the nation in points allowed and No. 1 in blocks (250). In other words, the defense has worked.
But as the postseason draws closer, Calipari hinted Monday at implementing a new wrinkle in the Wildcats’ defensive attack.
“We’ve done a lot of zone defense even though I haven’t used the zone yet,” Coach Cal said. “We have worked more this year on zone than maybe combined all my years of coaching.”
Conventional wisdom would suggest it’s simply a coaching strategy to keep the opposition guessing, but as this writer can confirm from watching practice, UK has practiced quite a bit of zone at the Joe Craft Center and it could turn into a difference maker in March.
“Whether it’s foul trouble or somebody else is playing and they’ve got their stuff down (and) they run their stuff to death and we want to play zone, we’re able to now go (to it) and not feel like we haven’t done this all year,” Calipari said.
Beckham hoping for warm return
Junior guard Twany Beckham was on the other side of the Kentucky-MSU rivalry two years ago.
He was there when DeMarcus Cousins flashed the “call me” gesture to Bulldog fans at “The Hump.” He was on the Mississippi State bench during UK’s dramatic overtime win in Nashville, Tenn., in the 2010 SEC Tournament game.
He has a full understanding of just how good the UK-MSU meeting has become over the years.
“It was the biggest game of the season when I was on Mississippi State,” Beckham said. “It’s going to be crazy tomorrow.”
Beckham played at Mississippi State for more than two seasons before transferring to Kentucky midway through last year. Tuesday will be his first return to Starkville since leaving the program.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Beckham said. “I’m hyped right now. Going down there to get to see some of my friends and playing in a place I played for two years, I can’t wait.”
Beckham, who has made 12 appearances for the Wildcats this year, doesn’t know what type of reception he’ll get from the Mississippi State fans, but he says he left there on a good note. He said he still text messages with Mississippi State point guard Dee Bost.
“I’ll be happy if (the fans) cheer,” Beckham said.
Moultrie a ‘handful’
For as long as Renardo Sidney has been at Mississippi State, he’s been the talk and the focal point of the Bulldogs’ frontline.
Here’s the catch: He may not even be MSU’s best frontcourt player.
UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie is averaging a double-double this season (16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds) and leads the SEC in rebounding. He’s one of the leading candidates for SEC Player of the Year.
“He’s going to be a handful and it’s not going to be one guy guarding him,” Calipari said.
Freshman sensation Anthony Davis will more than likely see extended minutes guarding him. Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury is hoping his star forward doesn’t try prove himself against the nation’s top shot blocker, but Coach Cal thinks it’s only natural for players to measure themselves against his team.
“They aren’t only playing against the name on the front of the shirt, they are playing against the name on the back of the shirt,” Calipari said. “That is what makes this (place) unique and different.”
As for Sidney, Stansbury said he is “day to day” after sitting out the last game with back spasms. The 6-foot-10, 280-pound forward averages 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds. Without him, Mississippi State (19-8, 6-6 SEC) will be hard pressed to end its three-game losing streak.
“It’s very obvious against a Kentucky team as talented as they are, you need everybody you can possibly get, and we don’t just need his body, we need his body to play well for us to have any kind of chance at all,” Stansbury said.