Notebook: Cal’s explanation for weariness: It’s March!

Never mind the bad hip. There’s a reason why John Calipari looks so exhausted these days.

“I am tired!” he told a friend recently when they said he looked worn down. “It’s March! I’m exhausted!”

Calipari wondered out loud at Friday’s pre-Florida press conference how else he’s supposed to feel at the most critical juncture in the season after months and months of trying to drag along the youngest team in the country.

“ ’You’re tired.’ How stupid is that?” Calipari said. “Do you look at any coach that doesn’t look tired? I’m the only one that looks tired? Oh my gosh.”

The basics

What: No. 25/24 Kentucky (22-8, 12-5 SEC) at No. 1/1 Florida (28-2, 17-0 SEC)
When: Saturday, noon ET
Where: O’Connell Center (12,000) in Gainesville, Fla.
Game notes: UK | Florida
Game preview: Cats relish rare role of the underdog, chance to turn things around
Video: Coach Cal’s pre-Florida presser
Video: Cauley-Stein, Young preview rematch with Florida

TV/Radio coverage

TV: CBS
Radio:  UK IMG
Satellite radio: XM 91; Sirius 91
Online audio: All-access
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog: CoachCal.com

Florida

Record: 28-2, 17-0 in the SEC
Head coach: Billy Donovan (443-168 at Florida)
Ranking: 1/1
Nickname: Gators
Player to watch: Scottie Wilbekin (12.9 points, 3.0 assists per game)
Series history: UK leads 94-35
Last meeting: Florida won 69-59 on Feb. 15

Coach Cal has done fewer and fewer media appearances over the last month as the wear and tear of the season has caught up to him. He’s nursing a bad hip – which will be replaced in the offseason – but handing off some of the media responsibilities to his assistants is also his way of preparing them to be a head coach.

But Calipari warned people from thinking that just because there are bags under his eyes or he isn’t as seen as much in front of the camera doesn’t mean he isn’t having fun. Despite the disappointing 22-8 record, Calipari has not hid his affection for this team behind closed doors or publicly. He’s called it one of his favorite teams to coach.

“These are great kids,” Coach Cal said Friday. “I love coaching them. I had a ball in practice yesterday.”

Calipari said he’s been told it doesn’t look like he’s having as much fun with his team this year, which he thinks could be a reflection of his team’s body language.

“I said to my team, ‘You guys must be rubbing off on me now, ’cause that’s never said about me when I’m coaching’ ” Calipari said.

Take me out, Coach

Part of Caliapri’s player-driven hope vs. the coach-driven reality of his team is a self-monitored substitution process.

When players know they are tired and need a breather, Calipari hopes they will sub themselves instead of relying on their coach to yank them.

Willie Cauley-Stein said UK’s struggles of this season are nothing compared to last year. (photo by Willie Cauley-Stein)

“I’m putting a couple of assistants on individual players and telling them, ‘You sub. If they don’t want to come out, just take them out,’ ” Calipari said. “So we’re doing whatever we can to get guys off the floor.”

If it seems like it’s the head coach’s responsibility to sub players, it is, but that’s not the point Calipari is trying to make. As Willie Cauley-Stein described Friday, when players rely on coaches to take them out, they try to conserve their energy to stay in the game longer instead of playing as hard as they can.

“When you’re tired and you’re just prolonging it, like, ‘I’m going to come out of the game,’ well then your performance is looking trash,” Cauley-Stein said. “Like maybe miss a box out because you’re tired or you’re not running the floor on that one possession because you’re tired.”

Cauley-Stein said Calipari isn’t lying when he says that if the players sub themselves, he will put them back in when they’re ready. If they don’t, they may sit longer.

“That makes you look bad, so then he’s going to get back at you and take you out and you don’t know if you’re going to go back in for five, seven minutes,” Cauley-Stein said.

Based on the number of minutes some players are logging – four guys are averaging 30 or more minutes per game – the Cats haven’t bought in to Calipari’s player-driven substitutions.

Cauley-Stein said the stubbornness to come out could be because of youth, but he isn’t 100 percent sure. After all, he’s just a sophomore.

“It looks like it,” he said. “I don’t know. I did it when I was a freshman and I’m still young, so it’s like you just got to listen, I guess.”

Bouncing back

Say what you want about last year’s disappointing NIT finish, the group was nothing if not resilient.

Time and time again the 2012-13 Cats were written off, but time and time again they answered the bell.

Take, for instance, Nerlens Noel’s injury and the ensuing thrashing at Tennessee. No one expected UK to bounce back from that one, but the Cats did with an improbable victory over nationally ranked Missouri. Then after a loss at Arkansas, when UK had to have a win, the Cats pulled off the upset of the 11th-ranked Gators in the regular-season finale.

Ultimately the season ended in disappointment, but it wasn’t as though Kentucky never bounced back.

Asked Friday if this team has learned anything from last year about coming back from adversity, Cauley-Stein said it’s hard to draw from experience when only four guys are left over from that team.

“It’s different because it’s a whole ‘nother team, so they don’t know what struggle you went through last year,” Cauley-Stein said. “The only people that really know is me, Alex (Poythress), (Jarrod Polson) and (Jon) Hood. And everybody else, they really don’t know what it feels like, so it’s different.”

And for all the adversity this group has faced, Cauley-Stein still thinks it pales in comparison to last year’s team. After all, that group played in the NIT and this one appears to be safely in the NCAA Tournament.

“Right now they’re feeling a little bit of the struggle and it’s really not as big as it was last year,” he said. “The struggle last year was people saying that you’re not going to make it, and then you’ve got some people saying that you have this amount of chance if you win this game, this game, this game, and then it puts a whole ‘nother pressure on you for it. This is just like – I mean, obviously you want to win – but it’s a different feel.”

Randle following orders

Julius Randle hasn’t scored more than 14 points in each of his last four games, but Coach Cal has been pleased with what his leading scorer and rebounder has given him recently.

“Julius, in the last three weeks, has done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Calipari said. “We just want him to take more jump shots, but he’s doing everything else. He’s rebounding the ball. Because he’s not playing as many minutes, he’s not breaking down defensively as much.

Randle is averaging 12.7 rebounds over his last seven games.