To discard this Kentucky team from doing anything special just because of the erratic regular season would be wrong, John Calipari said Tuesday.
Three days since his team’s season-saving win over Florida – season-saving in the fact that UK’s at-large NCAA Tournament hopes are now very much alive – and three days before it opens Southeastern Conference Tournament play against the winner of Arkansas-Vanderbilt, Coach Cal said the Cats can still make a special postseason run.
Look no further than his Final Four team of two years ago. That team lost six frustrating road games in the league but built momentum in the SEC Tournament and ultimately made it to the Final Four.
“This is about when we did it two years ago,” Calipari said. “Those guys made an effort to listen, to say we’re going to do what we’re asked to do, we’re going to play at another level, we’re going to take it up a notch. We’re going to really fight like heck and play to win. This group can do that same thing.”
The precedent doesn’t apply to just the UK program.
That very same year, the very same team that knocked UK off in the Final Four, Connecticut, produced a similar turnaround. After a 9-9 struggle through the Big East, the Huskies won five games in five days in the Big East Tournament and rode that momentum straight to the 2011 national title.
“They were like an 11 seed in their (conference) tournament,” Calipari said. “Then they figured it out, guys started fighting and everybody starting playing well.”
If it happened once, why can’t it happen again?
“You can do this,” Coach Cal has told his team. “This is one of those years. But you have to want to do it, and that has to be the most important thing to you – not how you’re playing; how we’re playing. That’s part of what we’re fighting to break through with this team.”
Of course, any type of special run depends on his team’s ability to build off the momentum it established with the victory against the Gators. Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 SEC) posted a similar marquee win over Missouri a couple of weeks ago only to lay an egg in its next two games.
That’s why, for as relieving and as rewarding as Saturday’s game was, not to mention one of the best practices of the year on Monday, the Cats haven’t convinced anyone – not even themselves – that they have turned that elusive corner yet.
“We’ve been where it seemed like we turned the turning point and reverted right back,” freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said.
While their backs aren’t quite against the wall anymore, they aren’t far off it either. Most NCAA Tournament analysts say UK needs at least one more win in the SEC Tournament to get an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Two wins and the Cats should be a lock.
The Cats know that just as quickly as things have turned in the last rollercoaster month since Nerlens Noel’s injury, they could change right back — and permanently — with a loss in their opening round of SEC Tournament play.
Since the Florida win, Coach Cal has said that it’s important his team keeps its “one-game season” mentality that made such a difference in Saturday’s game.
“We have something to prove, believe me,” Calipari said. “Individuals, as a team, we have a lot to prove. I keep telling them, ‘Let’s worry about us. Let’s just keep playing at our best and see what that means.’ ”
Much has been made of Coach Cal’s persistence that the SEC Tournament doesn’t mean much to him in terms of the format preparing his team for NCAA Tournament play, but he understands the importance of this year’s tournament in terms of its ramifications for UK’s postseason hopes.
“There is an importance to the game,” Calipari said Monday. “It’s not the tournament itself. I have not changed (on that). It’s, ‘OK, you’ve got to get this one to make sure you’re in, or you may have to get two, or you may have to win the tournament.’ So there’s an importance to it that way.”
The way he sees it, because his staff has always treated the league tournaments as preparation for the NCAA Tournament, they’ve been able to focus on getting better, which has led to their teams’ best basketball of the year.
At UK alone, Coach Cal is 8-1 with two SEC Tournament championships. Before last year’s heartbreaking loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game, Calipari’s teams at Kentucky and Memphis had won six straight conference titles. Overall, Coach Cal is 42-10 all-time in conference tournaments and has won 21 of his last 22 conference tournament games.
“We don’t put the emphasis on this tournament that we’ve got to win,” Calipari said. “What we’re trying to do is compete against ourselves and put ourselves in the best position, whether it’s getting in the tournament, whether it’s getting a great seed.”
It’s been a struggle at times, to say the least, but as the regular season turns over to postseason, the Cats still have a chance to put a special mark on the season.
“This team has gone and done a lot of good stuff,” Coach Cal said. “At the end of the day, you look back, with all that’s happened to this team, to be where we are, second place … we’re just hanging around, and that’s what we want to do.”
For a coach who has always said it’s about putting your team in a position to compete for special things at the end of the year, the Cats have hung around and done just that.
Now, starting this week in Nashville, Tenn., is the time to take it a step further.
“I still believe in this team,” Calipari said. “This team could do whatever they want, but you can’t say ‘Well, I want to do that but I don’t want to do this to get to that.’ You can’t. It doesn’t work that way.”