All of John Calipari’s tactics over the last week have been geared towards making his team work harder.
Nobody was working harder Saturday than Coach Cal on the sidelines.
He screamed, he stomped, he jumped and he gyrated. He even swatted assistant coach Orlando Antigua’s hand away during a sequence on the bench.
It was that kind of game for Calipari, who turned up his own intensity in hopes that his team would respond with similar fire.
At times, Kentucky (6-3) did Saturday afternoon in its 74-46 rout of Portland. At other times, it was the same old habits, the same lack of complete-game competitiveness.
Calipari said they were “better” on Saturday, but he used that age-old, “we’re still a ways away.”
“I had to coax them into playing,” Calipari said. “I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t be on a guy, ‘Play, scramble, stay down.’ What? What is that, strategy? I mean, that’s basically how I’m coaching right now.”
And now that Saturday’s game is in the books and Kentucky has just three games the rest of the month – all on consecutive Saturdays – Coach Cal is looking forward to tightening his grip on his team and getting down to business with Camp Cal.
With the exception of finals this week, it will be nothing but basketball, basketball, basketball for the Cats.
Calipari said there are 8-10 teams in the country that are better than everyone else. The question for the team right now and the answer Calipari hopes to find out over the next few weeks is, are the Cats one of those teams?
“I’m looking at everybody in the country saying we’re probably 50 to 100 right now, but we could be top 10, top eight,” Coach Cal said. “Those eight are the only ones that truly have a chance to win the whole thing. Do you want to be those or not? That was my challenge to them.”
If there was one guy Saturday who appeared to be meeting the challenge better than anyone else, it was sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow.
After missing two weeks with an illness and time to be with his family for an undisclosed issue, Harrow seems to be rounding into shape. With the exception of “two lapses of his old self,” Harrow played his best game in a Kentucky uniform.
The N.C. State transfer scored eight points, dished out six assists and grabbed four rebounds in a season-high 25 minutes of action. He committed just one turnover.
“I’m just starting to listen to (Calipari) more and accept what he’s saying and do whatever’s best for the team,” Harrow said.
Harrow played well from the start, often putting his teammates in great position to score. The problem for Harrow was, after entering the game 3-for-19 from the field and missing an early jumper and free throw badly, his confidence in his shot was starting to waver.
All Harrow needed was one to go in, which he got with a baseline floater at the 7:27 mark in the first half.
“I’ll be more confident when I’m shooting now just to see that go in,” Harrow said. “I’ll still be in the gym shooting just to work on it.”
Harrow’s jumper was the final points in a 16-0 first-half run for the Cats that turned a 10-10 tie into a 26-10 game.
Portland hung around all game thanks to some sloppy play from Kentucky, but UK put the pedal to the metal in the second half with a game-sealing 9-0 run.
“In a normal college game, if you have two teams fighting, one team will hang around for the half,” Calipari said. “About the 12-minute mark, 10-minute mark, 11-minute mark, they’ll let go of the rope. That is when you go on that 12-0, 12-2, 14-2 (run), and that’s the ballgame. But that’s been us, the team that let go.”
After that run, it was all fun and games for the Cats, who have had few joyous moments this season quite like Saturday’s end. With Harrow running the point and Archie Goodwin playing off the ball, the Cats were able to get out in transition and run, leading to three ferocious dunks in a minute’s span.
The highlight was a one-hand slam over Ryan Nicholas as Goodwin was fouled.
“Him in the open court never seems to amaze me,” said graduate student Julius Mays, who scored 13 points. “In my head, I was hoping that the other kid didn’t jump, but he did and (now) it will probably be on SportsCenter Top 10.”
Goodwin finished with 15 points, tying fellow freshman Alex Poythress for the team high.
Calipari dismissed UK’s play at the end as nothing more than mop-up points at the end of the game, but it was fairly clear that Kentucky’s offense flowed better with Harrow at the point and Goodwin off the ball. For one, it allowed Goodwin, a player who feasts on attacking, to get ahead of the pack and attack the basket.
“It allows Archie to play off the ball and be more aggressive at the two or the three instead of having to find everybody at the point guard position,” Mays said. “And Ryan is a true point guard, so it’s just a whole different look because he’s obviously looking to get other people involved.”
Just a day earlier, Harrow said he felt like he was trying to earn his teammates’ acceptance after missing two weeks. If high-fives and cheering from the sideline is any indication, they’ve welcomed him back with open arms.
“We’ve all accepted him, but I think he feels that, since he missed the time, he left us hanging,” Mays said. “But we don’t look at it like that. We supported him throughout the whole thing and we were ready for him to get back. We knew what he could do and it’s all about him having that confidence in himself. I think he’s finally getting it.”
With the exception of those few lapses of jogging and standing up that Calipari took him out of the game for, it appears Harrow is indeed “getting it.” Now it’s about taking Harrow and the rest of the team’s positive signs on Saturday and duplicating those for a full 40 minutes.
Calipari plans on coaching his tail off – screaming, stopping and jumping – if he has to get them to do just that.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Calipari told a few players after the game. “Hard trying to be special; easy being mediocre. It is really hard to try to be special. I can help you or you can say I don’t know what I’m doing … or you can listen to what I’m saying and do it.”
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