In the long haul of a basketball season, especially this late in the year, the same old routine can make the year feel like a grind.
To prevent the same old thing, coaches will oftentimes look for different ways — any way — to get through to their team to change things up, to lighten the mood or to ignite a little extra push.
For Kentucky’s John Calipari, the latest tactic came in the form of a rather large graphic in the hallway of the Joe Craft Center between the locker room and the practice floor. The graphic is a picture of the celebration that took place after Kentucky’s overtime win against LSU on Saturday.
The Wildcats saw it for the first time Tuesday walking into practice.
“It’s just right there, a big picture,” said Julius Randle, one of the centerpieces of the picture after hitting the game-winning shot against LSU. “I walked in and it was pretty cool. I’ve taken visits here. You see all the guys that have come through. To see them on the wall and you’ve got a picture of all us on the wall, it’s a pretty cool thing.”
The basicsWhat: Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC) at No. 17/15 Kentucky (21-6, 11-3 SEC)
When: Thursday, 7 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | Arkansas
Video: Antigua’s pre-Arkansas presser
Video: Randle, Lee preview Arkansas rematch
Video: Opponent preview
Cal on SEC teleconference: We’re getting better
TV/Radio coverageTV: ESPN
Radio: UK IMG
Satellite radio: XM 91; Sirius 91
Online audio: All-access
Live stream: WatchESPN
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog: CoachCal.com
ArkansasRecord: 18-9, 7-7 in the SEC
Head coach: Mike Andesron (55-36 at Arkansas)
Player to watch: Bobby Portis (13.1 points, 6.6 rebounds per game)
Series history: UK leads 25-10
Last meeting: Arkansas won 87-85 in overtime on Jan. 14
Assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who was filling in for John Calipari at Wednesday’s pregame press conference, said Calipari had the graphic made to remind the players to have pure joy for each other.
“I think that’s part of what, as coaches, it’s what we want them to understand: That’s what it feels like,” Antigua said. “That’s what it’s supposed to be about.”
It’s supposed to be about having fun.
As the regular season winds down, the love for the game and the enjoyment that comes from playing for your team could help propel the players through the rest of the regular season and into tournament time. For No. 17/15 Kentucky (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference), the grasp of finding joy in the game couldn’t have come at a better time.
“I think it was severely needed,” freshman forward Marcus Lee said. “We really needed that moment where we all just came together and needed that moment of passion. … That was a real big main point of the hump we needed to get over.”
The moment was a celebratory dog pile of players who were filled with smiles and laughter. Lee said they struggled to find joy earlier in the season because they didn’t know where to grab it from, but they manufactured their own fun Saturday.
“For one, we’re all getting better individually,” Randle said. “We see we’re getting better as a team, and once you see the results things start to become more fun. You may not see the results for a while but you got to stick with, stick with it, stick with it and just keep fighting, keep getting better. We see that we’re getting better. This is the fun part, the last couple games. We’ve got tournament play and it’s what we’ve been working on all year.”
Heading into UK’s rematch against the Arkansas Razorbacks (18-9, 7-7 SEC), the dog pile isn’t the only evidence that this UK team is having more fun.
Over the last few games, the players have been slapping the floor and clapping on defense to bring energy to their teammates. Antigua said those actions didn’t directly come from a coach’s request. Instead, they’ve been a byproduct of competing.
“I think they know that they can ignite each other in that way,” Antigua said. “You see one does it, and the other one it leads to someone else doing it and clapping and getting engaged. For a staff, that’s fun. For the fans, it’s fun, because you know they’re out there competing. That’s what we’re asking them to do: to give us that kind of effort, that kind of focus. It gets them out of themselves and into each other. When you have that kind of passion and energy it sparks each other.”
Antigua noted the importance of the players having fun, especially at this time of the year, but he said the joy has to come from a sense of working hard and investing time in your craft.
“You want them to have fun,” Antigua said. “They’ve been through the trials and tribulations of the season. They’ve put in a lot of hard work, and you want them to go out there and enjoy their rewards for working that hard.”
The Wildcats are hoping the fun continues in Thursday’s rematch with Arkansas at Rupp Arena.
The Razorbacks are currently 7-7 in conference play, tied with LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Tennessee for fourth place in the SEC. Just behind that logjam is Vanderbilt and Missouri, making Thursday’s SEC showdown a crucial game for the Razorbacks, who have won five of their last six games and are in search of the all-important double bye at the SEC Tournament that is granted to the top four teams in the league.
Antigua thinks the Razorbacks have improved since the Wildcats’ buzzer-beating loss in Fayetteville, Ark., on Jan. 14.
“They’re better,” Antigua said. “They’re right in the middle of the pack with the rest of the teams in the conference and we know they’re going to go out and compete and play hard, and we’re excited about the challenge.”
Randle remembers the previous matchup with Arkansas being a breakout game for the Wildcats.
“Fast-paced game, really physical game,” Randle said. “It was a tough environment to play, but I do remember that being kind of a little bit of a breakout game for us. It was learning how to fight, not stopping, just playing hard.”
In Bud Walton Arena, the Razorbacks forced 17 turnovers against the Cats and controlled the speed of the game. The teams were neck and neck down the stretch, but it was the Razorbacks who came out on top with as thrilling — or as heart-wrenching, depending on how you look at it — of a finish as you will ever see.
With the clock winding down, Arkansas’ Michael Qualls slammed home a dunk with two seconds left to give the Razorbacks an 87-85 victory.
As disappointing as that loss may have been, Antigua thinks the Wildcats have grown from it and improved.
“You see a phenomenal athlete who made a great play,” Antigua said about Qualls’ dunk. “I also see that we’re a much different team than we were in January. We’ve grown. We’ve matured, we’ve grown, we’re focused on every possession a lot better than we were early on. Even though that was one of the better games that we’ve played, there were still things that we could improve on and we have.”
After Thursday’s matchup at 7 p.m., the Cats only have three regular-season games left before the SEC Tournament. That means it’s officially grind time, and Lee thinks that the best way for the Cats to get through it is to have fun with it.
“Having fun helps everything out no matter what you’re doing, so finally seeing that fun sight in everybody’s face and eyes really helps,” Lee said.
In their own words: Poythress more comfortable, confident