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From the Pressbox: Tom Leach's take on UK's close games

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Calipari.jpegIf John Calipari was coaching a baseball team instead of basketball, the experts would say he lacks a closer.
Of course, in Cal's world, it's not about handing the baseball to a hardwood version of Mariano Rivera -- it's a team effort to make the plays on both offense and defense that make the difference in close games.

As the Wildcats prepare to head to Arkansas on Wednesday night, some, perhaps all of the players are thinking about the ones that got away in road losses to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and Vanderbilt, games in which it wouldn't have taken much more from the Cats to swing the outcome in their favor.

"We lost a couple of road games early and maybe that gets to you," senior Josh Harrelson said. "I just think we need to come out like coach is saying and don't worry about the score or where we're playing. If we play our game, I think it's going to be hard to beat us anywhere."

Sports operate in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately environment, so if the Wildcats suddenly win a couple of close ones, the conventional wisdom will do a 180-degree turn and being battle-tested in so many tight games could be viewed as an asset for this squad. That's "if" the Cats get a couple of those close wins.

"I asked Sam Cassell, when I coached him in New Jersey in the NBA, I asked him 'Why do you want the ball late, why do you want to make the game-winning shot, why are you not afraid to shoot the free throws?' " head coach John Calipari said in his latest pregame interview on the Big Blue Sports Network. "He said, 'Cal, you got it wrong. I'm not afraid to miss. That's why I'm good in those situations. If I miss, I miss and I go on to the next game. I'm not afraid of missing.' "

Calipari said it's all about having the right mindset.

"You can't play not to lose," Calipari said. "You have to play to win. You can't look at the scoreboard. You have to think about execution. You know if you're down eight or nine, you've got to speed up the game, and if you're up eight or nine, you've got to play but you've got to massage the clock a little bit. If it's a close game, you grind it out and make sure every shot matters and we're going to offensive rebound like crazy. Let's not play like we're afraid and we're going to lose a game. We've lost some games and we've lived. We've just got to get it better in those last four or five minutes."

Of course, there's a difference in saying how to play in close games and actually doing it. Calipari believes all the close games could eventually benefit the Cats.

"I like the fight in the team but demonstrated performance is the only thing that is going to build that confidence," Calipari said. "They've got to go into a close game and in the last four or five minutes, really play well. Don't worry about the clock. Don't worry about the score. Worry about execution. A little bit more leadership on that court and we'll be fine."

And keep in mind what you've just read when you think about why players like Jon Hood, Stacey Poole, Jarrod Polson and Eloy Vargas don't get many minutes. That was a hot topic for some fans and media members Saturday when Calipari didn't empty the bench until very late in a blowout win over South Carolina.

"We've got to get better as a team," Calipari said on Monday's Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference. "If I'm going to play six or seven, then those six or seven have to get better.That's the first thing on my mind. I'm working the (players') psyche now, too,"

Focus on those last two sentences. Calipari's emphasis since the loss at Vandy has been on the message of closing out games the right way, and Kentucky has struggled to do that in wins as well as losses. 

Last Saturday's game was a chance to see if the six guys who are clearly going to carry this time in March were finally starting to understand what the coach wanted to see down the stretch of a game. Could they not only build a big lead, but could they hold it, something they didn't do in wins over South Carolina and Georgia in January and late in the win over Mississippi State.

This time, the Cats did not let the opponent get back into the game and make it closer than it should have been, so perhaps that was a sign of progress.

Yes, Calipari also talked about South Carolina continuing to press as a reason to stay with those top six players, but to me, the key point was the part about working on his team's psyche. Hood or Vargas or Polson or Poole will most likely have to help Kentucky win a postseason game or two because of foul trouble or a turned ankle or something else.

But it's clear by this time that Calipari knows his best chance at winning is to rely on those top six guys, and using any situation -- like a blowout win -- to get them more work on the proper way to close out games will hopefully pay dividends the next time the outcome of a game hangs on which team makes a few key plays in the final minutes.

Kentucky's team last season was like a tank in times in the way it could overpower opponents, but this season the Wildcats are going to have do it with "six shooters."

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I really believe the Cats can go far in the tourney. Sweet 16 or Final 8 is realistic...Final Four not likely, but would be nice. GO BIG BLUE !!!

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  • Dave / NM: I really believe the Cats can go far in the tourney. Sweet 16 or Final 8 is realistic...Final Four not read more