As John Calipari praised his team for its improvements Saturday, he said the Marshall game was just what the doctor ordered.
The Thundering Herd presented the Cats with a big, physical team they had not seen in some time. They had great size at every position and players that could match up physically with Kentucky’s talent.
It was the perfect tune-up for Kentucky’s next opponent, archrival Louisville, right? You know, that team an hour down the road that carries a No. 5/4 national ranking.
“Who are we playing next week?” Calipari said, his sarcasm as obvious as the importance as the strides his team made Saturday. “We’re playing Louisville? Whoa, that’s going to be a hard game.”
Perhaps the toughest Kentucky has played this season.
The Cats have played the likes of top-ranked Duke and Notre Dame this year, but many experts believe the Cardinals have the most talented team in the country. From top to bottom, with players like Peyton Siva, Wayne Blackshear, Chane Behanan and Russ Smith, they are certainly one of the deepest.
Louisville is essentially the same team that UK played in the Final Four a year ago, only with more experience and additional pieces.
“They’ve got a veteran team,” Calipari said. “They’ve got everybody playing well. They’re beating everybody by 30 and 40. Hard game for us. They’ve got terrific players, really good players.”
Like UK, Louisville has a full week off after dusting Western Kentucky 78-55 on Saturday night in Nashville, Tenn.
Kentucky has won four straight games in the series, including last year’s titanic Final Four matchup. Coach Cal has yet to lose to the Cardinals since taking the UK job.
“Believe me when I tell you, I’m not worried about anybody we’re playing,” Coach Cal said. “I’m worried about my team. If we go in and Louisville is way better than us, we move on to the next game.”
They’ll be home for the holidays
Ryan Harrow admitted last week that Coach Cal has been on him so much to talk that he sometimes just yells “nonsense” to show that he’s talking.
Last week he was yelling, “Screen! Screen! Screen!” This week it was “Let’s go!” As in let’s go home.
“That was just to make sure that we played good so that we were able to go home,” Harrow said. “I didn’t want to have to stay here over Christmas break.”
Does Harrow really believe that Coach Cal wouldn’t have let them go home for Christmas had they not made the right amount of strides?
“I don’t know,” Harrow said. “You never know with him.”
Calipari has always allowed his team to go home to be with their family and friends for the holidays. This year’s group is due back the day after Christmas for an evening practice.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin racked up the points again on Saturday – 18 of them – but it took him 17 shots to get there.
He made just 4-of-17 shots against Marshall, one of the few disappointments on an otherwise encouraging afternoon.
“I was disappointed,” Caliapri said. “He missed four layups. I think he’s flipping. Rod (Strickland) thinks he’s looking down, not seeing the basket, looking up at the last moment to shoot it. I don’t know what it is. I’ll watch the tape, see if I can figure it out.”
Goodwin still leads the Cats in scoring at 16.0 points per game, but UK will need him to play much better next week against Louisville to stand a shot against the Cards.
“You can’t miss layups,” Coach Cal said. “Bad enough missing open shots, but missing layups, c’mon, you’re not going to win.”
Freshman forward Alex Poythress grabbed a career-high-tying nine rebounds against Marshall, which had the opposite reaction one might expect from Calipari.
The fact that Poythress could grab that many boards against the biggest team UK has played this season didn’t encourage Coach Cal; it frustrated him.
“Think about some of the other teams we played where he was going against a 6-2, 6-3 guy and he couldn’t do what he did today,” Calipari said.
Poythress ranks among the nation’s leaders in field-goal percentage (64.9 percent), and he showed signs Saturday that he’s playing with more consistency, but he’s still nowhere near the level Calipari expects him to be.
“Look, Alex Poythress did some good things and then he reverted at times,” Coach Cal said. “Just grabbed a guy on a foul, wanted to stop playing, left his feet three times because he was late getting to the guy.”
End of the Big Blue World?
The end of the world didn’t come Friday as many predicted, but Marshall head coach Tom Herrion acknowledged that the world may have ended for some Kentucky fans Saturday had the Cats lost to his team.
“Sometimes it is like the end of the world coming if you guys don’t win or you play poorly,” Herrion said.
Asked to assess the potential of this UK team, Herrion had some advice for the Big Blue Nation: take a deep breath, relax and allow these young Wildcats to grow.
“They are going to get better and better,” Herrion said. “You all are in the midst of it every single day, but you can’t flip the roster every year and expect the magic wand to happen from game one to game 39-40. It is going to take some time. Sometimes give respect to the teams they have played. Baylor won by almost 20 last night against BYU. Notre Dame is pretty good. It is not always how your team is struggling or bad. Maybe some other teams played well.”
Before taking off for the holidays, Calipari took the time at the end of Saturday’s postgame news conference to wish everyone Merry Christmas.
“I want to wish all of you here a Merry Christmas, and any one of the fans that are listening, Merry Christmas,” Coach Cal said. “Hug your kids. We know what just went on up in Connecticut. Hug your kids. Hug your wife. Hug your spouse. If you get a chance to reach out to someone else, even if they don’t know who you are or what you’re doing, I tell you, do that.”
Calipari and his team reached out to a number of people before the Christmas break to give back during the holiday season. The Cats donated shoes and washed feet with Samaritan’s Feet, they helped with a coat drive, and they donated gift baskets that included rent checks, clothing and gifts to Lexington area families in need.
“One of the things we’ve tried to do with this basketball team is get them to understand fame and even fortune are fleeting, money has wings,” Calipari said. “When you’re in those positions, you have a chance to help and make people feel good and special for a short time.”
Calipari is spending the holidays in Lexington at the Calipari house. His children, Erin, Megan and Brad, are all in town for the holidays.