Aaron Harrison had 16 points as UK completed a nine-point comeback against Georgia on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There John Calipari was again, saying unexpected things in a Kentucky huddle.
Almost a month after he famously told the Wildcats he wanted them to lose at LSU, Coach Cal had an interesting reaction when UK found itself down nine with barely nine minutes left at Georgia.
"I hope we go down 10," Calipari told his team.
Just like against the Tigers in UK's last close game, there was a reason Calipari was talking that way.
"We need to find out who's who, who's going to make a play, who's going to do stuff, who's going to play," Calipari said. "I kept saying, 'Scared money don't make no money.' "
There no fear in the way the top-ranked Cats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) closed out the Bulldogs in a 72-64 win, especially not after Georgia was up six with five minutes to go.
"We're a really together team, so we knew we just had to lean on each other and depend on each other and that's what we did," Aaron Harrison said. "Players came through."
Harrison, unsurprisingly, topped the list.
The clutch sophomore guard scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including five points in a decisive and game-ending 16-2 run.
"Aaron, of course everyone knows what he's going to do in a big game," said Andrew Harrison, who started the run with a 3-pointer. "And Karl(-Anthony Towns), Karl stepped up great down the stretch."
Similar to that close call at LSU, a mistake by Towns seemed it might end UK's bid for an unbeaten season. Backing down in the post, Towns extended his arm attacking the basket rather than kick to a wide-open Tyler Ulis at the top of the key. The result was the fourth foul on Towns with 5:50 to go.
"They double-teamed him and he had Tyler Ulis wide open and he ball faked," Calipari said. "Why? And then he charged the guy. Throw it to the - don't be a hero. That's the thing he's learning. Easy play. Quit trying - he is so good, you don't have to do crazy stuff. Other guys do. They have to do crazy stuff to stand out. You don't. Why are you doing it?"
A little more than two minutes later, with UK on a 6-0 run to tie the game, Towns checked back in and Calipari called for the offense to run through the 6-foot-11 freshman. He promptly scored seven of the Cats' next eight points to finish a dominant 19-point, seven-rebound performance.
"That's how much I think of him," Calipari said. "I know he has the courage and he has the skill and the ability, and that's what we did: We went to him late."
But if not for UK's defense, Towns' offense would have mattered little.
In building the lead, Georgia had a stretch of seven straight possessions with points and later three straight. It was around the five-minute mark that Towns spoke up and said the Cats needed three stops in a row to climb back into the game.
Andrew Harrison, who scored 12 points and steadied a UK offense that committed a season-low three turnovers - raised him to five.
"I was looking at my jersey number," he said. "Nah, I mean, we just wanted to get as many stops as long as we could. That's what we did."
On cue, the Cats - with the help of two missed front ends of one-and-ones - held Georgia scoreless on six straight trips, much to the chagrin of a raucous Stegeman Coliseum crown.
"They're starting to be empowered," Calipari said of his team. "They're starting. Last year, it was about this time they said, 'Alright, we can listen to everyone make excuses for us, tell us it's not me, personally, it's somebody else. Or, we can come together and do this.' And they did it. This year, right now, again, I don't want them relying so much on me. I want them to be about themselves."
The Cats are accepting that challenge, whether that's in games like the five straight blowouts that preceded Tuesday or a hard-fought battle like the one Georgia gave them.
"It definitely builds confidence to know that we can win a close game 'cause we have guys that have been through this, and even our younger guys are mentally tough and ready for it," Aaron Harrison said.
Eric Bledsoe | Phoenix Suns: 117, Oklahoma City Thunder: 113 (Overtime) It took a near triple-double performance from the Suns' star player and five extra minutes of basketball for Phoenix to put away the Thunder last Thursday on TNT. Bledsoe recorded 28 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks in the nationally televised win at home.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (31-29) In addition to Bledsoe's superstar performance on February 26, the 6-foot-1 Birmingham, Ala. native averaged 19.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 6.3 APG through a four-game week. In two wins and as many losses, Bledsoe turned in two double-doubles. DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (20-36) Before sitting out Friday's home contest with the San Antonio Spurs due to a sprained ankle and bruised hip on the left side of his body, Cousins produced 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a 102-90 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on February 25.
Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (40-18) After missing almost the entire season with lingering injuries and illness, Jones is back in the Houston starting lineup and better than ever. The former 2011 First Team All-SEC performer manufactured two dazzling double-double showcases over three consecutive Rockets victories. On February 23, Jones recorded 15 points and 15 rebounds in a 113-102 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Four days later, the Portland native exploded for 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 102-98 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (32-27) In three games last week, Kanter averaged 17.7 PPG and 7.7 RPG, resulting in two wins for OKC. On February 22, Kanter had 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 119-94 lopsided victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (23-33) Though the Hornets dropped two games and won only one, Kidd-Gilchrist boasted two double-doubles over last week's three-game stretch. On February 25, MKG had 18 points and 12 rebounds in Charlotte's win over the Chicago Bulls, and 12 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday.
Brandon Knight | #3 PG | Phoenix Suns (31-29) Eric Bledsoe's newest backcourt teammate put up double-digit scoring outings in three of the Suns' four games last week. Knight scored 20 points on February 23, 19 points (with six assists) on February 25, and 15 points the next day, before a season-low one-point performance in 17 minutes on February 28.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (13-45) Noel surpassed his season average for blocks per game in three of Philly's four matchups last week. The 20-year-old big man highlighted the four-game stretch with 18 points, seven rebounds and four blocks on February 23, and 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on February 27.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (34-26) Wall dialed in four straight double-digit performances in the assist category in four straight Wizards losses-- capping off a seven-game D.C. losing streak. The Raleigh, N.C. native averaged 14.8 PPG and 10.0 APG in one Washington win over a busy five-game week.
John Calipari and Kentucky face a rematch with Georgia on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The clutter isn't going away.
That's why John Calipari won't stop talking about it.
"I talked to them about it yesterday a little bit and just said, 'You've got to stay the course, and that's the one thing that can break us down,' " Coach Cal said.
As Kentucky has piled up wins, the noise surrounding them has intensified from an early-season buzz to a dull roar now that the calendar has flipped to March. Of course the national media has latched on to the top-ranked Wildcats' pursuit of perfection, but Calipari is more worried about immediate threats.
"Like I said to them, you're going to have people around that are trying to make you like them and they're going to say whatever they've got to say, which is, 'Ah, you should shoot more, you should play more,' " Calipari said. " 'Why is he going to him and not you? What about this? You really don't like that guy, right? You're the man.' I mean, again, it's all to enable, it's all to make them feel good and, 'Come with me, listen to me, talk to me.' That's the stuff they've got to be mature enough to deal with."
"I could put my head in the sand and say, 'Ah, that's not happening here,' " Calipari said. " 'This is Kentucky.' It's worse here. So these kids are strong, they're mature for their age, they've dealt with it, they've done it."
It's a good thing, too, because the tests on the court aren't getting any easier.
That starts Tuesday at Georgia (19-9, 10-6 Southeastern Conference), a team that was within six points of the Wildcats (29-0, 16-0 SEC) in the final five minutes of a February matchup in Rupp Arena. For further evidence that UK is in for a major test, look no further than the fact that Georgia played that game without leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton.
"This is a totally different game," Calipari said.
Working in Kentucky's favor is the fact that Trey Lyles is back in uniform. He missed the first game against Georgia due to illness, but has scored 18 points in back-to-back games. Coach Cal has labeled the freshman forward UK's X-factor, so figures to help against the Bulldogs.
"They're a better team, and they're playing better," Calipari said of Georgia. "Hopefully we're playing better. We have Trey now.
"They're an NCAA Tournament team we're playing on the road. It's gonna be a hard game for us."
Making it even more of a challenge is the coach who will walk the Georgia sideline. Calipari knows he can watch all the tape in the world and still not know what to expect from Mark Fox.
"He may come out and play zone," Calipari said. "He may come out and play man. They may sag. You don't know what he's going to do. He looked at the tape, and he's going to try to exploit us defensively. He is one of those coaches that I know when we walk in we better be ready. Our team better be ready, our staff better be ready. His team will be ready. He's one of the toughest ones to go against that I've been in 20-some years."
Led by Fox, Georgia has won three straight after a stretch of four losses in six games while the Bulldogs suffered through a rash of concussions.
"They run their stuff," Calipari said. "They do their stuff. They know how they're supposed to play and they play that way. They create the kind of shots they're trying to create. They put you in situations. They know where they're gonna find their shots. They do a good job."
Fortunately for the Cats, their preparation won't change much based on Georgia. Calipari just wants them playing basketball and having fun.
"If a team plays with anger, mad, that physiology can turn to fear," Calipari said. "I want you to play with joy. Play with joy. Have fun. Joy always beats anger, negativity. 'What's the worst thing I can say?' versus 'How can I build something up? How can I make this (positive)?' I just told them about it last game: Just play."
Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 84-67 win over Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
From the opening moments, you could sense Andrew Harrison was about to have a big game.
The way he dribbled screamed confidence. The way he was attacking, he seemed certain no one would stop him.
Not surprisingly, his coach took notice too.
"It's a spirit," John Calipari said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play."
No one felt it more acutely than the Arkansas players who had the unfortunate task of trying to shadow him on Saturday.
Harrison was in control from tip to buzzer as top-ranked Kentucky (29-0, 16-0 Southeastern Conference) led by as many as 31 in a victory over No. 18/16 Arkansas (23-6, 13-5 SEC) more dominant than the final score of 84-67 suggests. He had 18 points, three rebounds and three assists as UK clinched its 46th SEC regular-season title outright and moved to within two wins of a perfect regular season.
"I felt like I could get into the lane and find my teammates and score if they give me that," said Harrison, who made 2-of-4 3-point tries and 8 of 8 at the line. "I was just taking things given to me today."
Harrison also gave very little back.
The sophomore point guard committed just two turnovers in steadying UK against Arkansas' patented pressure. The Wildcats had nine turnovers as a team in 70 possessions, putting their turnover percentage at .129, well below the 22.9 percent Razorback opponents are averaging on the season.
By contrast, Harrison committed eight of UK's 35 turnovers in a pair of losses to Arkansas during his freshman season.
"We just remember last year," Harrison said. "We lost to them twice and didn't want that to happen again. We knew what they were capable of and we worked hard and came out with a win."
Harrison may have gleaned an added edge from the memory of those two losses, but it wasn't as if the spirit Coach Cal noticed in him appeared out of nowhere. In eight February games, Harrison is averaging 10.6 points, 4.5 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game, marked improvements in all three categories compared to his season totals.
"He doesn't stop on the court," Calipari said. "There's nothing. 'I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled.' "
Harrison has shown that kind of attitude in spurts over the course of his two Kentucky seasons, but never more consistently than this recent stretch.
"I had it when I got here," Harrison said. "It's just--you have to be ready to bring it every night. That's what you have to be prepared to do. That comes with maturity and stuff like that, I guess."
Improved conditioning doesn't hurt either.
"It's hard (to play the way Calipari asks me to play)," Harrison said. "You have to be in good shape. Not only do you have to push the ball on offense, but you have to pressure the ball on defense as well."
As much progress as Harrison has made, Calipari still thinks he can reach another level.
"I still want him to get to the rim more," Calipari said. "I thought he had two or three or four other opportunities to drive the ball, which I'm telling his brother the same thing. Don't settle, man. We threw it to him on the wing. It was him and no other defenders except the guy on him. Don't pass it to anybody. Drive the ball. You're 6(-foot-)6, you're a moose. Get the ball by the guy, get in the lane, shoot the layup."
If anyone understands what Coach Cal is asking, it's Tyler Ulis, Harrison's fellow point guard. Ulis also understands what Harrison means to Kentucky when he delivers.
"Andrew's playing great," said Ulis, who had 14 points himself. "When he's aggressive and pushes the ball he's one of the best players, one of the best point guards in the country. When he's doing that he's a great player and I feel like if he understands that and does it all the time then we're just going to be a great team."