Coming off a disappointing loss at Georgia and facing talk that the Wildcats had moved to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, Coach Cal is telling his team they have a one-game season in front of them. It's up to the Cats how they respond.
"Now are you gonna fight like heck?" Calipari said. "Are you gonna play through the ups and downs of a game? Or are you gonna die?"
Coach Cal is still keeping basketball in perspective though. His family, the well-being of his players and his work in the community are of course still important to him and his morbid choice of words shouldn't tell you otherwise. Even so, the fact remains that this Kentucky team as presently constituted will likely soon cease to be if the Cats (20-10, 11-6 Southeastern Conference) can't find their way beginning with Saturday's game against SEC champion Florida (24-5, 14-3 SEC) at noon on CBS. That's where the melodramatic metaphors come in.
It's been a constant theme this season, UK's inability to respond in the face of adversity, to show consistent fight through the up and downs of a game. What Coach Cal is hoping is that the Cats will go the right direction now that their fight-or-flight response is truly being tested.
"But you can turn it on at any point. It's kind of like, 'Uh oh, if I go under one more time, I'm gonna drown. I better start swimming,' " Calipari said. "And all of a sudden you start swimming. The car's laying on you; it's on your leg. You gotta lift a 3,000-pound car. It's funny how you figure out how to lift it to get it off your leg so you don't die so you can get out of there and get help. This team can do what they choose to do."
Julius Mays knows which path he's choosing.
He has more experience than anyone on UK's roster and will play his final collegiate home game on Saturday. Mays came to Kentucky hoping to compete for championships and has poured himself into that goal during his lone season as a Wildcat. He's acutely aware of the fact that his time is running out, which has made UK's fits and starts in conference play all the more frustrating.
"I think as the season went on we had more guys buy in each time, but we just haven't had that full buy-in," Mays said. "When we think we do, we always take two steps back. Instead of progress, we always reverse. "
With each passing game, the Cats have paid the price more and more for their regression. Never before has a potential loss been as costly as the game against the Gators.
"So now it's come to the point where it's do or die for us," Mays said. "The guys that haven't fully bought in, they're going to have to hate me after tomorrow."
Mays simply won't accept anything else less than maximum effort. This kind of game, after all, is exactly why he chose to come to Lexington in the first place: high stakes, elite opponent, raucous environment, national television.
"When this kind of game comes, this is what being at Kentucky's about," Calipari said. "You're at home, you're gonna have 25,000 crazy fans with you, go ball. You don't hold anything back."
Though the Cats will have the vocal support of a capacity crowd in Rupp Arena for Senior Day - something they didn't have in back-to-back losses at Arkansas and Georgia - it won't be easy. The Gators handled UK less than a month ago, 69-52, and are on the shortlist of contenders for an NCAA championship.
His team has its life on the line, but Coach Cal wouldn't have it any other way.
"This is the game you gotta go and say, 'Alright, it's a one-game season. How are you gonna play?' " Calipari said. "And you're playing against a team that's vying for a one seed. They're playing for something too now. They're trying to get a one seed. So it's gonna be a hard ballgame, but that's what we need."