In the recruiting process, John Calipari tells his players that this program isn’t for everyone.
This week, the Wildcats are learning that goes both ways.
Dealing with the consequences of two straight losses, the Wildcats have been met with the reality that fans expect wins at Kentucky. Even with a national championship last season, some of them – even if only a small faction – haven’t taken kindly to back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor.
The negative backlash prompted four players – Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Julius Mays – to delete their Twitter accounts this weekend.
“Just a bunch of negativity so I decided it was time to delete it,” Cauley-Stein said Monday.
Cauley-Stein said he had been thinking about deleting his Twitter account anyways, but the negative reaction, particularly after the Notre Dame loss “kind of put the icing on the cake.”
“I don’t want to look at it no more, and even the positives,” Cauley-Stein said. “I don’t really look at the positives anymore neither. I just want to be playing out here with my teammates and doing what Coach tells us to do every day and trying to get better and get this thing back on track.”
What: No. RV/19 UK (4-3) vs. Samford (2-7)
When: Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Samford
Video interviews: Cal, Cauley-Stein, Goodwin and Poythress
Video feature: Under the lights
Head coach: Bennie Seltzer (2-7 at Samford)
Player to watch: Tim Williams (15.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists)
Series history: UK leads 1-0
Last meeting: UK won 82-60 on Dec. 20, 2011
It should be noted that Cauley-Stein wasn’t blaming the negative backlash on UK fans. When you play at Kentucky, the critics kick hardest once you’re down. Now that UK has hit its first bump in the road in a long time, the critics are out.
“It’s definitely a different world here,” Cauely-Stein said.
The other side of that, of course, is what Kentucky players have experienced over the last three years. The national championship. The increased draft stock. The exposure.
It’s what Coach Cal calls the Kentucky Effect.
But if the players thought the Kentucky Effect was only a one-way street of benefits, they’ve learned the hard way following a 4-3 start. If the negative reaction on Twitter wasn’t enough of an eye-opener, Sunday’s two practices certainly were.
Cauley-Stein called them “by far the hardest day of practices” this year.
“It was tough,” Cauley-Stein said. “We did a lot of running and a lot of holding each other accountable. If anyone made a mistake, we ran as a whole team. We ended up running a lot of suicides.”
Calipari said he’s never been a fan of long, over-the-top practices for fear of wearing down the players, but some teams and some players need it. Coach Cal likened the tough love approach that he is going to instill with this team to the one he gave former Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson, who responded from the tough treatment by going from a bench warmer to an NBA player.
“I just think you beat kids down by doing that, but some teams need it,” Calipari said. “And this team – Alex (Poythress) and really all of them (need it). You’ve got to understand nothing’s given to you. You’ve got to earn it. But you’ve got to fall in love with the gym. Even when you’re not in practice, you love wanting to go over there. We’ve had other guys – last year, they were in the gym all the time. This year, they haven’t been in there one day. Well, it’s kind of showing. Hopefully they’ll change.”
Perhaps this team needs a “Breakfast Club” of early morning workouts and team-building exercises like the one Michael Kidd-Gilchrist started last year.
Poythress said they did call a players-only meeting over the weekend, but Coach Cal has always been skeptical of what those actually produce and jokingly said, “I wish they had got together after the first loss.”
“Eventually someone will step up,” Caliapri said. “What’s happened to us – I got a call from a friend (who said), ‘Your teams always have a sense of urgency. This team doesn’t, like it’s just OK to go out there and play basketball.’ There’s no desperation, sense of urgency, toughness, diving. And you know what? We’re going to have to do it in practice if they’re not playing that way.”
Calipari said he takes the blame for focusing too much on situational work early in the season and not enough on toughness and developing a will to win. For that, Calipari said don’t take to the players’ social media accounts to blame them.
If fans want to express their frustration, Calipari said to head to his Facebook or Twitter pages.
“Situations don’t matter down 15 or 12,” Coach Cal said. “They don’t matter. And do so we needed to just keep focusing on cementing the habits of how hard you have to play and playing through comfort levels and all those kind of things. That’s not them; that’s me. Like I told you, I’m still learning about the team and what it needs, what it needs from me, what’ve got to instill in it. It’s going to take time.”
Calipari reiterated that he isn’t fazed by his team’s 4-3 start. Monday was the first time a Coach Cal team at Kentucky has been outside of the Associated Press Top 25, but Calipari said after Saturday’s game that his first UK team could have easily racked up several more early season losses, and the 2010-11 squad struggled to win on the road in the Southeastern Conference before making a run at the Final Four.
“This is going to be a process,” Calipari said. “I’m comfortable with what I have to do. I’m not rattled in any way. I’m not, ‘Oh my god, we lost a couple games!’ This is not football. We’re not out of the national title hunt. We’re not out of anything. All we have to do is get right.”
The fact Kentucky was even in the game on Saturday after posting some rather putrid offensive numbers should give a pretty good indication that it might not take much more than just some extra effort to get back on track.
Taking 17 more shots than Baylor, grabbing 11 more rebounds and 21 offensive rebounds, UK still somehow scored just 55 points, tied for the second-lowest mark of the Coach Cal era at Kentucky (the lowest was set Thursday at Notre Dame). The major reason why was a 29.6 percent shooting mark, the lowest of any Kentucky team since Jan. 7, 2006 in a loss to Kansas.
After Kyle Wiltjer, Ryan Harrow, Nerlens Noel and Julius Mays combined to go 7-for-43 from the field against the Bears, UK dropped from the top shooting team in the country to 16th. What was once the second-best 3-point shooting team has plummeted to 66th.
“You hope it doesn’t happen at one time, but it did,” Calipari said.
Coach Cal said there were signs Saturday that his team was playing more aggressive, but the times the Cats relaxed cost them a victory.
“The biggest play of the game was Nerlens (Noel) blocked a shot, we’re down three, it’s going to be our game and just see it on tape: Alex’s guy blows him out of the way because he’s not prepared,” Calipari said. “He’s standing straight up and down, (the Baylor player) grabs the rebound, and one, ball game. What? That’s how you’re going to lose a game? You’re going to let him get the ball instead of you get the ball.
“Well, my teams, historically, always get that ball. It’s not every once in awhile. This team right now does not.”
The players hope to get back on track starting Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Samford.
“Growing up and watching how his teams play, I can see the difference in the way that they played and how tough they are compared to our team right now,” freshman guard Archie Goodwin said. “We just have to work on that. They were a lot more competitive than we are right now. They had a lot more toughness. They were more of a team than we are.”