Wildcats hit the road for the first time in conference play
The big topic heading into this week is the fact that the Wildcats are hitting the road in conference play for the first time with trips to Auburn (8 p.m. Wednesday) and Tennessee (noon Saturday). Anyone who follows Kentucky basketball will remember the struggles UK had on the road a season ago, losing six of eight games in conference away from Rupp Arena.
"Last year on the road when we were still trying to figure out who we were, we weren't very good," Calipari said. "By the end of the year, we got better and we became one of those teams but it took us a while."
It's impossible to know at this point whether this year's team will repeat those problems of a season ago on the road, but, on the positive side, the Wildcats have faced about as challenging a road environment as you can imagine against Indiana last month.
"The good news is playing at Indiana gives them an idea of what the games will all be like, every one of them, including the Auburn game and Tennessee," Calipari said. "Every one of them will be like that Indiana game."
Road environments in SEC play will certainly be tough, but it's difficult to believe they'll approach what it was like in Bloomington, Ind. Nevertheless, Calipari's point stands.
Another reason to think UK could be better positioned to succeed more quickly on the road this season is that the Wildcats are much further along in discovering their identity than a year ago this time. Calipari took much of the blame for those road losses, saying "we weren't playing the right way." Once he figured out how to run his offense through Brandon Knight, incorporating significantly more dribble hand-offs, the Wildcats soared.
"Hopefully this year's team is a little farther advanced because I had a better idea of how this team would have to play," Calipari said. "It took me three months before I could figure out what (was) the best way for that team to play. When the team came together and figured it out, we were one of the better teams in the country last year."
If the Wildcats are further along this year as Calipari suggests, more success could follow on the road. Even so, winning there is no small feat. Other leagues like the Big East and Big Ten receive more attention for high-quality basketball played there, but Calipari says the SEC should not be sold short.
"Last year were 2-6 on the road and were a basket or two away from winning the national title," Calipari said. "We were in the Final Four. We were 2-6 last year in this league. People don't give these teams and these coaches enough credit."
Opposing coaches laud UK's talent, defense
South Carolina scored 46 second-half points this weekend against Kentucky, but Gamecock head coach Darrin Horn came away impressed by the Wildcats on the defensive end.
"I think they're another really talented Kentucky team," Horn said. "They're extremely good defensively because of their ability to guard the ball with their length and athleticism and with (Anthony) Davis back there blocking five shots a game, it makes a huge difference for them."
Auburn head coach Tony Barbee has the unenviable task of trying to prepare his team for a matchup against Davis and company. Having played for Calipari at Massachusetts and coached under him at Memphis, Barbee knows the kind of defense to expect out of a Calipari-coached team and this year is no exception. However, Davis' presence in the middle makes UK that much more dangerous on the defensive end for his ability to erase mistakes.
"All of his teams are great defensively and it gets that much better when you have a guy like Davis in the paint who blocks shots like he does," Barbee said. "Now you can be more aggressive and that's what he's doing. Now it really puts pressure on the other team's guards and forwards to make plays."
To Barbee, the only things more impressive than the way Calipari's players get after it on the defense end are their effort and unselfishness.
"Coach has had a bunch of great teams and this is another one with a ton of talent and a bunch of length," Barbee said. "He does what he always does and gets them to play extremely hard and extremely unselfish.
"He gets his really talented guys to play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of the jersey."
Calipari: Four freshmen 'have really done well'
Midway through the season, Calipari is very pleased with the way his four highly touted freshmen have adjusted to the college game. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis have clearly been impressive and have received deserved accolades, but Calipari says that's partially a function of the positions they play and what's asked of them.
"Obviously Anthony and Michael have probably done a little bit better but it's a little bit easier the positions they have because all you're asking them to do is go out there and play hard," Calipari said.
That's not meant to denigrate the accomplishments of the two young stars, because both have played with exceptional effort throughout the season and accepted their roles willingly. Instead, Calipari means to say that Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer have been faced with a different set of challenges than their freshman counterparts.
Calipari has had to work extensively with Wiltjer to figure out how to play him most effectively and capitalize on his notable gifts as a scorer.
"Kyle Wiltjer has shown signs that he's as good a scorer as there is," Calipari said. "We're trying to fit him in defensively to our schemes and how we're going to have to play. He's got to be a little rougher, but he's 18 years old. It's hard to be out there, be rough and throwing people around when you're a young kid."
Teague, on the other hand, has been asked to play the most demanding position on the floor in leading a team picked by many to advance to the Final Four. All the while, he's had to cope with inevitable comparisons to Calipari's last four point guards, all of whom were lottery picks, two No. 1 overall picks, two NBA Rookies of the Year, and one the reigning Most Valuable Player.
"Here he is," Calipari said, "the starting point guard playing 30 minutes a game on the No. 2 team in the country averaging four-and-a-half assists, three turn(overs), has had points of the game where he's just dominated and he's still learning the position and we're getting everybody's best shot and they're scrambling up defenses and presses."
Calipari is hard on his point guard because he knows he has to be for him to develop as he needs to, but the criticism some have heaped on Teague has been unwarranted. Ultimately, point guards are measured by their team's record (UK is 15-1) and the way those surrounding him are playing and Teague has succeeded in those areas by any measure.
Of course, he's had his share of "bad spells" as Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight did, but all told, Calipari said Teague should be praised for his play, not criticized.
"The kid has done fine, Calipari said. "I'm probably playing him too many minutes out of necessity but I need him on the floor to learn, yet not where he's exhausted. That's happened a few times. I think he's done fine."