Kentucky ran past Samford on Tuesday night in the first half, which was all the Wildcats needed to do to break a two-game slide and win 88-56.
After that the Cats, jogged, walked, and if you ask John Calipari, sleepwalked their way through the second half. For lack of running in the second half, they’ll run Thursday morning. And the morning after that, and the morning after that.
Because of Tuesday’s discouraging second half, Coach Cal has instituted a three-week conditioning program. The Cats will rise and shine before their classes every day and condition with strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver.
“Strap ‘em on, boys,” Calipari said after the game.
Kentucky will condition because being out of shape is the only explanation Coach Cal can come up with for his team’s lackluster performance in the final 20 minutes of play. After putting a foot on Samford’s throat in a 45-14 first half, the Cats (5-3) only outscored the 2-8 Bulldogs 43-42 in the second half.
“You need to learn how to play a full game,” Calipari said. “They had that opportunity today, so we have to chalk it up to they’re not in shape. They will be. We’re going to be the most in-shape team inside the next three weeks.”
The second-half effort comes on the heels of back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, the program’s first consecutive losses since losing two straight to Ole Miss and Florida in February 2011.
In the days since the Baylor loss – UK’s first at home in the Coach Cal era at Kentucky – Calipari has ratcheted up the intensity in practice, turning to a tough love approach to get his players to play with more toughness, effort and a will to win. It’s a similar method to the one he used with Josh Harrellson to change his mentality and transform his game.
One of the few Wildcats to play strongly in the second half, Willie Cauley-Stein posted his first career double-double with 12 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.
He was hoping the approach would make the players more accountable and send a message that it takes more than just talent alone to beat team, but obviously his team didn’t meet those expectations for two halves Tuesday.
For that, they’ll be up every morning starting Thursday (UK is off Wednesday) at 7 to condition with Oliver before going to class. In the afternoon they will return for practice. Calipari said they may stop with the conditioning if they can play a full game, but he isn’t confident that will happen.
“Whatever it is, we’ll get Ray Oliver, 20 to 30 minutes of straight running,” Calipari said. “Heart rates will be high. Not heart rates at 120. Your heart rate is going to be at 175, 180.”
Calipari said he’s not like other coaches who practice their guys for three-and-a-half hours, but at this point he said he has no other choice since some players can’t finish plays much less the game.
“Obviously they don’t get it yet, but they will,” Coach Cal said. “They’re not going to have a whole lot of choices here.”
Kentucky actually came out strong in the first half. A day since dropping out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time in the Coach Cal era at Kentucky, the Cats took their frustrations out on Samford in the opening 20 minutes.
UK started the game on a 21-3 run and didn’t allow the Bulldogs to reach double figures until the 4:15 mark. Samford was forced into 14 first-half turnovers while making just four field goals.
The Cats’ defense was particularly impressive. Four players had two or more steals in the first 20 minutes in addition to five blocks. The 28 turnovers for the game led to 28 points
Still, there were lapses in effort, and at times in the second half it was hard to tell there was any passion at all, a disturbing trend considering everything Calipari has preached about competitiveness recently.
“I can’t think of any other reason why you wouldn’t come out in the second half and play,” Coach Cal said. “I just don’t understand that, especially (with) what we’ve been going through.”
After allowing just 14 points the entire first half, Kentucky gave up a 9-0 run to start the second. For a team that yielded only four Samford field goals before halftime, the Cats allowed the Bulldogs to drill 17-of-29 shots in the second half.
“The way we played in the first half, we took these guys out,” Calipari said. “We played, blocked shots, took charges, played – like played basketball, competed against the other guy. In the second half we played like we did against Notre Dame and Baylor, which was, if they beat you, they beat you. I didn’t get there. Can’t be anything other than that they’re not in shape.”
After five minutes of sticking to the out-of-shape line in his postgame news conference, Calipari hinted that it may be more than just a lack of conditioning.
“Some of it may be mentally you’re not strong enough, you’re soft,” Coach Cal said. “So the conditioning is good. It makes you stronger mentally.”
Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who posted his first career double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, said the condition program is “all mental.”
“He’s trying to get us more mentally tough,” Cauley-Stein said. “There’s no way we can’t be in shape. Going through offseason and even how practices are now, there’s no way we’re not in shape.”
Six Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Archie Goodwin’s 18 points and Alex Poythress’ 16, but Calipari wasn’t in the mood for stats after the game. He’s no longer letting his team pass on raw talent alone.
“I think we all got intoxicated, including me, about everything that was written and said about this team,” Coach Cal said. “I kept telling you, ‘We’re not that good.’ I’m looking, ‘Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’re better than I think.’ Uh-uh.”
Calipari said if you demand a lot, you get a lot; if you accept mediocrity, you get mediocrity.
“Obviously I’m accepting something less than their best, and that’s on me,” Calipari said.
So he’ll demand more Thursday with a brutal conditioning schedule and see what happens from there. If the Cats can’t respond in time, they’ll cruise right into the annual Camp Cal, where classes will cease but the conditioning will continue.
“This is what they need,” Caliapri said. “I’m not mad. They’re going to get in shape. I don’t know why else they wouldn’t play when we’ve lost our last two games because we didn’t compete. So you come out for 20 minutes and you compete, then you come out the second half and you don’t. Then you’re not in shape or you don’t care. I don’t want to even go that way. I don’t even want to hint that way. So they’re not in shape then. But they will be. Ask Josh Harrellson. Changed his life.”