The burial plot was dug, the flowers were in place and the eulogy had been given.
“One week ago we were in coffins,” John Calipari said Tuesday. “People were trying to nail them shut.”
Like rising from the dead, Coach Cal’s Kentucky basketball team is firmly back in the NCAA Tournament picture after back-to-back wins against Vanderbilt and Missouri, but Calipari didn’t make that statement Tuesday to appraise his team. He said it to offer perspective.
One week ago, the Wildcats’ best player, Nerlens Noel, was gone for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. They had just gotten embarrassed by Tennessee. NCAA Tournament analysts said they weren’t going to make the Big Dance. Kentucky’s guards were in a major funk.
Hope was lost for many.
Coach Cal never lost that hope when he said he believed in his team and believed in its fight, but that’s not the point. If the last couple of weeks have taught us nothing else, it’s that things can change at a moment’s instance.
They changed when Noel went down with the knee injury at Florida. They changed back when Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) fought back against Missouri. They can change again in a matter of one loss if the Cats don’t stay focused.
What: Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 SEC) vs. Mississippi State (7-19, 2-12 SEC)
When: Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Mississippi State
SEC teleconference: Coach Cal trying to stay in moment
Video: Cal, Polson and Wiltjer
Mississippi State File
Record: 7-19, 2-12 SEC
Head coach: Ricky Ray (7-19 at Mississippi State)
Player to watch: Craig Sword (9.8 points, 1.5 steals)
Series history: UK leads 88-20
Last meeting: UK won 73-64 on Feb. 21, 2012
“You can go right back to where you were if you don’t have maturity or toughness,” Calipari said.
Win or lose, Wednesday’s Mississippi State game (8 p.m. on the SEC Network) will be a true test of just how mature and just how focused UK really is.
The Bulldogs are down to just six scholarship players and two walk-ons due to a major roster turnover under new head coach Rick Ray, an unfortunate string of injuries and the suspension of Roquez Johnson for a violation of team rules.
Mississippi State has lost 12 straight games in the SEC by an average margin of 21.7 points, including a 41-point loss to Vanderbilt last game. Nobody on MSU’s roster averages double-figure scoring, and the Bulldogs rank in the bottom third in just about every national major statistical category there is that doesn’t include blocks or steals.
“There is nobody in the country that’s went through what we’ve went through,” Ray said Monday. “I don’t care what level – NAIA, Division II, junior college – with the numbers that we have. And I would wonder if anybody in the history of college basketball has been through what we went through as far as like the off-the-court issues and then the injuries.”
Ray is fighting an uphill battle, but he isn’t asking for anyone’s sympathy. He’s proud of how his players have hung in and continued to fight.
“When someone says, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ no you don’t,” Ray said.
“You really don’t. But you can’t use it as an excuse. At the end of the day, you have to go out and try to compete and win ballgames because no one’s canceling the season.”
In that respect, the Wildcats can’t feel sorry for Mississippi State, much the way no one was feeling sorry for them last week when the season looked to be blowing up.
While Mississippi State is a significant underdog Wednesday, stranger things have happened to much stronger teams than this Kentucky squad. It was just last week that the Bulldogs gave Alabama – the same team that UK lost to – everything it could handle.
“It was a four-point game with five minutes to go at Alabama,” Calipari said of Mississippi State’s matchup with the Crimson Tide last week. “I just watched their game with LSU. It was a two- or three-bucket game at the end of the half. LSU made some 3s, turned them over and spread it out, but it ended up being a 12-point game. This team is capable if we don’t have the maturity to understand one week ago where (we were).”
Given the rollercoaster ride of emotion, effort and focus for this team this season, it’s not certain that the Cats will take their big win Saturday and build off of it.
“We’ll see,” Coach Cal said. “You don’t have to say one word. They’re going to watch how you play, and if you do what you’re supposed to, people can make their judgments.”
Not getting too caught up in the ever-changing emotions and adversity of the season could be why the Cats were able to bounce back from such a low point last week and get to where they are now. That’s also a pretty good lesson not to get too high after the win over Missouri.
“You’ve got to keep living on and you’ve got to keep working no matter what happens,” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “We’ve just tried to stay positive regardless of outcomes of the games, and that’s what we’ve done.”
All of it comes back to a mindset and a perspective, Calipari said. With the success UK has enjoyed over the previous three years under Coach Cal and even his run at Memphis, it’s been easy for everyone to expect 30 wins every year with few hurdles to overcome.
The Cats have been fortunate that things have gone so smoothly the first three years, but that’s rarely how things go. If you use a bit of perspective, Calipari said it’s easy to see that UK was in a similar position just two years ago when his team lost six road games in the SEC and yet still made a run to the Final Four.
“We just kept going,” Coach Cal said. “We had the maturity to say let’s take advantage of this now. Let’s see if we have that maturity to take advantage of the position we’re now in versus the position we were in seven days ago.”
Noel surgery set
Calipari confirmed Tuesday that Noel’s surgery to repair his torn ACL in his left knee has been scheduled, but no other details are available at this time.
Coach Cal said Noel has a long road ahead of him, but he’s confident he’s up to the task.
“(Rajon) Rondo’s going through it,” Calipari said. “Rondo said it is, ‘The toughest and the most painful thing I’ve ever been through in my life.’ You’re tough enough to go through it. Those guys that do end up coming back, in most cases, (they come back) stronger than they were.”
At some point, after Noel has the surgery and begins the rehabilitation process, Calipari said he may have Rondo, who just underwent his ACL surgery a couple of weeks ago, and his former Memphis star Derrick Rose, who is nearing a return from an ACL tear, call Noel to talk to him about the rehab process.
“There’s no slacking off,” Coach Cal said. “There’s no, ‘Well, I’m not going to go hard today.’ No. You got five months of work, and I’ve told him that. I think he’s up for it.”
Derrick Anderson, who missed the last part of his senior year in 1998 with an ACL tear, drove to Lexington two weeks ago to talk to Noel. Noel’s mother was also in town over the weekend to see how her son was doing.
“He’s in a good frame of mind,” Calipari said.
Mays refuses to fail
For all the talk Coach Cal’s program gets for his freshmen, it’s been the veterans that have made some of the most significant impacts in UK’s runs over the last few years.
In Calipari’s first year at Kentucky, it was Patrick Patterson who provided a veteran presence to go along with a versatile game. In 2010-11, Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins blossomed into leaders and blue-collared performers. Last year, Darius Miller hit some of the season’s biggest shots in the biggest games.
This season, another veteran, Julius Mays, is filing that veteran void.
Mays’ 24-point performance Saturday night was one of a number of clutch performances he’s put together this season, but it’s been his leadership and his ability to hold the younger guys accountable that’s been his most valuable asset this year.
“He’s a wonderful young man,” Coach Cal said. “He made a statement to his teammates, ‘What makes you and drives you? What is it for you?’ He came back and said, ‘I’m my mother’s only son and I refuse to fail.’
With limited depth and virtually no other veteran players who play significant minutes, Mays has played 122 of the last 125 minutes of game time.
“He has taken on that role of holding people accountable,” Calipari said. “He’s seeing the faces I see and the excuses I hear. He’s hearing the same stuff, but it’s coming from him now – holding guys responsible. It’s been fun to see him try to develop over this (year), and thank goodness he’s on this team because … holding it together has been a job that he’s done.”
(national rankings, which includes games through Feb. 24, in parentheses)
|Scoring offense||74.9 (31)||59.3 (326)|
|Scoring defense||64.7 (132)||69.0 (236)|
|FG percentage||48.3 (12)||39.9 (311)|
|FG percentage defense||39.3 (38)||43.9 (238)|
|3-point percentage||36.4 (65)||27.1 (342)|
|3-point percentage defense||32.2 (111)||34.9 (233)|
|FT percentage||64.7 (298)||66.0 (268)|
|Rebound margin||+4.4 (55)||-4.2 (304)|
|Steals per game||6.1 (244)||7.9 (69)|
|Blocks per game||7.3 (2)||3.8 (138)|
|Assists per game||14.3 (85)||9.5 (336)|
|Turnover margin||-0.9 (239)||-1.7 (284)|
(UK’s stat leaders does not include Nerlens Noel, who is out for the season with a knee injury)
|Points per game||Archie Goodwin (13.9)||Craig Sword (9.8)|
|Rebounds per game||Alex Poythress (6.1)||Gavin Ware (6.5)|
|Field-goal percentage||Willie Cauley-Stein (62.8)||Gavin Ware (56.1)|
|3-point percentage||Kyle Wiltjer (40.6)||Jalen Steele (34.3)|
|Free-throw percentage||Julius Mays (83.6)||Trivante Bloodman (75.3)|
|Assists per game||Julius Mays, Archie Goodwin (3.1)||Trivante Bloodman (2.4)|
|Blocks per game||Willie Cauley-Stein (2.0)||Colin Borchert (1.3)|
|Steals per game||Archie Goodwin (1.0)||Fred Thomas (1.7)|
Getting championship rings ‘just like winning’ again for ’96 greats