The way John Calipari spoke after last week’s Lipscomb win, Saturday’s Marshall game could be one of the most important this season.
At the very least, when he said that the Cats (7-3) won’t win many more games if they didn’t make big changes this week, he implied that Saturday’s 4 p.m. game at Rupp Arena could be a potential season turning point.
Now two weeks into Camp Cal, it’s time to see if all those early morning conditioning workouts, additional practices and time together is having an effect.
“They’ve done good, but the follow-through, the carryover into the game is what we’ll all wait for,” Calipari said. “Everybody’s watching for the same thing. Every fan and everybody else is just (wondering), ‘Are they going to compete at a really high level? Are they going to battle? Are they going to talk more? Are they going to play with more energy?’ If they do, we’re all going to be really happy. Winning will take care of itself if we get to that point. Right now, it’s not even about that. It’s just when you watch, are they competing at a higher level?”
Coach Cal and the Cats have hinted that they’ve seen improvement thanks to some “outside-the-box” tactics that Calipari said he will share at a later time, but the defining judge in UK’s improvement will take place during the games.
“You really can’t say how much we’ve improved until tomorrow really,” freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “It just depends on how we play tomorrow, because if we don’t play good, it’s like the last two weeks was nothing.”
Head coach: Tom Herrion (50-29 at Marshall)
Nickname: Thundering Herd
Conference: Conference USA
Player to watch: D.D. Scarver (15.5 points, 34 3-pointers)
Series history: UK leads 11-0
Last meeting: UK won 89-76 in December 2003
By now you’ve heard the details of Camp Cal. It’s get up in the morning, eat breakfast with each other, condition, rest, return for practice, possibly watch film, eat again with each other and then rest.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” Cauley-Stein said. “Sleep, eat, play basketball.”
Because classes are out of session, Caliprai makes the players treat these few weeks like basketball is their “job.” This time of the year has always been a turning point in his teams’ improvement.
The Cats have worked on a number of things this week, specifically their mental toughness, their conditioning and communication skills, but a byproduct of all the work together this week is that the players become closer and they build chemistry.
“It’s all intertwined together,” Calipari said. “They’re together, they’re pushing each other.”
The meals together – which Calipari pointed out in a blog post Thursday has helped the team’s nutrition – has forced the guys to bond outside of practices and games.
“It’s fun when we go out to eat,” Cauley-Stein said. “We get to learn about guys that you wouldn’t have thought they’d done that. Like last year, they tell stories about last year and it’s just fun.”
Because of all the time together, graduate student Julius Mays said they are having more fun and playing with joy, a staple that Coach Cal said has been missing from this team.
“It’s been a lot more competitive and guys have been getting after each other,” Mays said. “It’s been a lot more fun than it has been. Like (Coach) said, he wishes he would have done this at the beginning with this team, but I’m glad that we did start doing it now. I think guys are starting to enjoy it more and I’m hoping to see a big change tomorrow.”
Marshall looks to be Kentucky’s toughest competition since playing – and losing to – Baylor at the beginning of the month. The Thundering Herd will likely be without one of its top players, point guard DeAndre Kane, but Marshall has the size and the athleticism to give Kentucky problems.
The Herd, without a doubt, is not an automatic win for the Cats before a brief holiday break.
Win or lose, though, Saturday comes down to taking that “little change” from a week ago and increasing it to big change. Coach Cal has said that they may not fully see the effects of Camp Cal for another month, but he does want to see some progress this week when it comes to holding each other accountable, playing through possessions and talking.
If all goes according to plan and things turn out like they feel for the players, this game and these last two weeks could be a defining point in the season.
“You’ll look back at the last two weeks and see how much they flew by and see how much you really got accomplished and see how tough it actually was,” Cauley-Stein said. “Then you realize you can push beyond your barriers. It really wasn’t as bad as you thought it was going to be and you’re just more mentally tough for it.”
Hood inactive due to respiratory illness
Junior guard Jon Hood will not play Saturday due to an upper respiratory illness. He is not expected to be on the bench.
Hood has played well in limited minutes this season, hitting 5-of-8 shots, including 4-of-6 3-pointers.