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Taking responsibility: Cal willing to change to whatever team needs him to be

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John Calipari and Kentucky will host Alabama in their home finale at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari and Kentucky will host Alabama in their home finale at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For whatever the reason truly is, the 2013-14 Kentucky basketball season has not played out the way it was supposed to.

After UK raked in a record six McDonald's All-Americans, collected what some hinted as the best recruiting class of all time and started the year with a preseason No. 1 national ranking, there was talk of a 40-0 season.

Regardless of where the undefeated chatter originated and whether or not the Wildcats did (or didn't do) themselves any favors by failing to temper expectations, the season is what it is now. UK is 21-8, just barely hanging on to a top-25 ranking in both polls, and slip-sliding its way down to an NCAA Tournament seed no one thought was possible when the year began with such visions of grandeur.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since Saturday's loss to 11-18 South Carolina - John Calipari did not attend the postgame press conference because he was doing his radio show at the same time - Coach Cal said if you're looking for someone to blame for the way things have gone so far, look no further than him.

"I don't know if it was my arrogance or the team's arrogance, but at the end of the day, whatever's going on with this team comes back to me," Calipari said.

On a number of occasions during Monday's Southeastern Conference teleconference and his pregame session with local reporters, Coach Cal took responsibility for UK's recent fall, which includes losses in two straight games and in three of the last five.

"It's on me," Calipari said. "I don't put this on 18-year-old, 19-year-old kids. They don't know. You think they know why they're going through that they're going through? In most cases they don't. It's our job and my job as the head coach to figure out what we have to do, how we have to do it to get them to play as well as they can possibly play."

If that means coaching a style more in line with his age and not like the 35-year-old he has been of late - jumping up and down with every call, pleading with his players to play harder - he said he will. If that means his players need more positive reinforcement - a "cheerleader," as he called it - and less of a general, he will do it.

"I will be whoever I have to be because this isn't about me; it's about this team," Calipari said. "And I've got to get them more confident and figure out what do they need me to be. A cheerleader? What do they need me to be at this point? And that's how I've always coached and it's never changed. If I have to be tough, I'm tough. If I have to be easy, I'm easy."

Calipari may have wanted to coach this group a certain way - he said he wanted them to hold each other accountable - but he admitted that these 18- and 19-year-olds "obviously ... weren't ready."

So he's ready to change.

Calipari said this situation is no different than some of his past teams that he's adjusted to. He noted that he's never been labeled as a my-way-or-the-highway type coach.

"Throughout my career, there's not been one way that I've done things," Coach Cal said. "There's not been one offense or zone defense or press. It's whatever the team needs from me. And that's what I do, and I at the end of the day I take responsibility."

With only two regular-season games left - Alabama at Rupp Arena on Tuesday at 9 p.m. and at Florida on Saturday - it may seem like it's too late to make major adjustments in approach, but the Cats are ignoring the fact that Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away.

"I don't think we've given up on the season at all," said Jarrod Polson, who will be honored alongside Jon Hood before Tuesday's game for Senior Night. "I think we're just trying to improve and work harder than we ever have before. We really don't think the season is over and we think we can write our own story, and that's exactly what we're trying to do."

For all the blame Coach Cal tried taking for failing to meet preseason expectations, Polson and Hood directed the responsibility their way.

"Honestly, it's not anything that he can do," Hood said. "It's the way we take it, the way we take the messages and the way that we play. He's not out there playing for us. He's not in between the lines. He can only do so much."

Regardless of whose fault it is - the responsibility probably lays somewhere in between - the key is collectively figuring to the solution to the problem. Calipari said that starts one little thing at a time.

The fifth-year UK coach said he just has to keep coaching them, noting that just two weeks ago, after good showings against top-ranked Florida and a blowout victory at Ole Miss, his team looked like it had everything "figured out."

"Part of it is, you got to work your way through it," Calipari said. "Part of it is, when adversity hits, will you come together?"

Getting their confidence back on the offensive end would be a good place, tactically, to start.

UK has made a combined 34.9 percent of its shots over its last three games and failed to shoot better than 40 percent in three of its last six. Against South Carolina, the Cats looked so discouraged in their inability to hit jump shots that they started driving the ball into a crowd of defenders with reckless abandon. The result was the worst shooting percentage (.269) of the Calipari era.

Calipari said his team is missing too many shots at point-blank range.

"We're not getting enough free baskets," Calipari said. "We've been working hard on running and getting it out and going. The other thing I think, again, getting the ball in the basket with contact. You've got to get it in. You can't have an excuse. You've got to get the ball in, so we've been working on that some with the kids. We're trying to do stuff to let them know, 'What you need to do, you're capable of doing. Now you have to get out there and do it.' "

While all can appear lost when you hit a rough patch at Kentucky, a senior like Polson knows the season isn't over. He said the players have had a lot of meetings of late, both with Calipari and without, and they've decided to focus on putting the past in the past and focusing on what they can control, which is their future.

"We're starting 0-0," Polson said. We're starting fresh. I think our spirits are better than what people think they are."

The Cats realize their backs are against the wall after their most recent adversity, but they're all taking responsibility to change the ending.

"Everyone in the nation doesn't think we have a shot," Polson said. "They think we're done for. ... It's us against the world and we're going to prove everyone wrong."

Philosophy isn't the problem

Coach Cal's ownership of the disappointing season thus far spanned the spectrum of his responsibilities.

"I'm responsible to get them to play right, to get them in the right frame of mind," Calipari said. "If they're not in that frame of mind, that's back to me. This team is young because we recruited a young team. So all of it comes back to me."

If you think that means Coach Cal is going to change his recruiting philosophy of recruiting the nation's best talent, not so fast.

Though Calipari has said youth has been a big part of UK's problems all year long, he's not going to start recruiting kids who lack talent just to get them to stay a few more years. He's not going to encourage players to stay longer than they should out of self-interest either.

"Look, I'd like to have guys stay for me but if the opportunity arises for them, I'm not going to hold guys back," Calipari said. "I'm recruiting good players. Some of them people think would go; others think they wouldn't go, and you don't know until the year's out. You just don't know. The environment we're in, you can either convince guys to stay that should leave or recruit players that aren't quite good enough to be here and compete. 'Well recruit a top-50 (player).' He thinks he's one-and-done, too."

Though Calipari gets labeled as a supporter of the "one-and-done" rule because of how many one-year college players he has sent to the NBA, he's actually long been an opponent of it.

There is recent speculation that the NBA may change its entry requirements, perhaps to a two-and-done rule, but Coach Cal reiterated that college coaches play no factor in the current NBA rules.

"It'll be between the NBA and the Players Association," Calipari said. "Has nothing to do with us. My hope is they come to terms with it and they know it's best for everybody involved, including the players.

Lock it up

Kentucky, technically, isn't even a lock for the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament or for the double bye.

If UK were to lose its final two games and both Georgia and Arkansas won their final two, the Cats would fall back to the No. 5 seed and play on Thursday of the SEC Tournament instead of Friday.

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1 Comment

One thing I see about this team is a lack of work to get open for their shots and when they do get open they are not getting the ball. Also I am concerned about why when Polson gets open he does not shoot the ball. The only one I see that is willing to drive to the basket so that things open up offensively is Andrew Harris. But when he does drive he needs the help of others to finish the play.

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