Even on the winning track, Cats still searching for their identity

John Calipari doesn’t claim to have all the answers to his team, but he is usually pretty good at coming up with something when he’s asked.

That’s what made Monday’s pre-South Carolina news conference so perplexing. Coach Cal was admittedly in a rush to get to the practice court, but to hear him say “I don’t know” five times in a seven-minute span may speak volumes to how much he is still trying to figure out his team.

“We’re getting better but we’ve been in flux the whole season,” Calipari said.

Heading into Tuesday’s 9 p.m. matchup with South Carolina, Kentucky has won five of its last six games and appears to be on the right side of the bubble.

But after struggling to fend off Texas A&M and missing another opportunity to capitalize on a momentum-building win like the one at Ole Miss, the Cats (15-6, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) are as big of a mystery as they have been all season.

“We have not been able to say, ‘OK, here’s who we are and let’s just get better,’ ” Coach Cal said. “It’s put us in positions where we’re not as confident in each other. Guys don’t believe in each other the way they should. We just haven’t been together like that.”

Asked what his team’s identity is at this point in the season, Calipari said he doesn’t know.

“It’s still developing,” he said.

The Basics

What: UK (15-6, 6-2 SEC) vs.  South Carolina (12-9, 2-6 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | South Carolina
Video: Cal, Wiltjer and Poythress

South Carolina File

Record: 12-9, 2-6 SEC
Head coach: Frank Martin (12-9 at South Carolina)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Gamecocks
Player to watch: Brenton Williams (10.6 points per game, 31 3-pointers)
Series history: UK leads 46-10
Last meeting: UK won 86-52 on Feb. 4, 2012

TV/Radio Coverage

Radio: UK IMG
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog: CoachCal.com

For most teams and coaches, that would be disconcerting news at this point in the year – in February where the postseason looms just a little over a month away.

But for Coach Cal, whose teams have historically jelled in February and March, there’s no panic going on. For one, UK has dealt with the instability of losing Ryan Harrow early in the season and Willie Cauley-Stein recently, but more importantly, Calipari is confident because his team is learning while winning games.

“We’re just hanging on,” Calipari said. “We’re hanging on and we’re not near our best. We’re hanging on, and this is what happens when you have a young team. You look at numbers: We have five guys in double figures (in scoring) and really six. Shoot a pretty good percentage. Defensively, hold them to a pretty good percentage both in the three and the two. I mean, literally, like really good. And we got all young kids.”

Outside the stats, what we do know about this team to this point is it struggles to close out teams when it builds a big lead.

In games against Vanderbilt, Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss and last Saturday’s Texas A&M game, UK has either blown a double-digit lead or a comfortable margin in the final few minutes. The Cats have gone on to win all five of those games, but play with fire long enough and it will eventually burn you.

“We’ve just got to become a better finishing team,” Calipari said. “We’ve got to become a better team when we’re up 15 or 16, and that’s all mindset. That’s all that it is.”

What else does Calipari know about his team when it comes to mindset? The dreaded word “soft.”

After watching his team get pushed around by the Aggies again, Calipari has accepted the fact that this group just isn’t tough enough yet.

The Cats boast a plus-4.9 average rebounding margin, ranked 51st nationally, but they’ve been susceptible to giving up chunks of offensive rebounds in various games. Six times this year they’ve given up 15 or more offensive rebounds to the opposition.

Although South Carolina is still in rebuilding mode in Frank Martin’s first year as head coach, soft teams are typically the ones that Martin-coached teams feed on. Even at 2-6 in the SEC, the Gamecocks boast a plus-6.0 average rebounding margin this season.

“We’ve got guys that don’t want that kind of game, and until you relish playing in that type of game, you’re going to look like you’re passive, soft or whatever you want to say,” Calipari said. “You have to want that.”

In challenging his team to get tougher Monday, John Calipari seemed to allude to Ryan Harrow as a player who needs to step up his game. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

With the exception of a freshman like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who came in with the right discipline and attitude, Coach Cal said it usually takes first-year players awhile to figure out how to play physical at this level. Besides his first season, he said he has had to coach toughness every year he’s been here.

Embarrassment is usually what leads to the change, he said.

“First of all, accept your position, accept your predicament, accept your weakness,” Calipari said. “Alright, what are they? Now change. That’s a great thing about the human race, when we figured out, ‘I can change my own attitude.’ And then we figured out, ‘Wow, if I change all my habits it changes who I am? Wow.’ ”

As was the case Saturday and really all season long, nothing is going to come easy with this team. But as long as the Cats keep winning and keep marching towards another NCAA Tournament berth, the fight to get tougher, to improve at the end of games and to get better overall will be worth it if they can piece it together and identify who they are by the end of the year.

South Carolina is just the latest step in that season-long struggle.

“Anything worth having is a dogfight to get,” Calipari said. “Stuff that’s free and all that stuff, it’s not worth having anyway. That’s where we are.”

Team stats

  UK South Carolina
Scoring offense 76.2 69.1
Scoring defense 62.9 67.9
FG percentage 48.6 43.5
FG percentage defense 38.0 43.8
3-point percentage 36.0 33.5
3-point percentage defense 30.2 32.4
FT percentage 64.5 69.7
Rebound margin +4.9 +6.0
Steals per game 6.7 5.1
Blocks per game 7.8 3.5
Assists per game 14.9 12.8
Turnover margin -0.1 -2.1

Stat leaders

  UK South Carolina
Points per game Archie Goodwin (14.8) Brenton Williams (10.6)*
Rebounds per game Nerlens Noel (9.5) Michael Carrera (7.0)
Field-goal percentage Willie Cauley-Stein (62.1) Lakeem Jackson (60.3)
3-point percentage Kyle Wiltjer (40.9) Brenton Williams (41.3)
Free-throw percentage Julius Mays (82.1) Brenton Williams (83.1)
Assists per game Ryan Harrow (3.2) Eric Smith (3.2)
Blocks per game Nerlens Noel (4.6) Lakeem Jackson, Midauguas, Kacinas (0.7)
Steals per game Nerlens Noel (2.3) Bruce Ellington (1.4)

*Leading scorer LaShay Page is inactive due to academic reasons