UK defeated Alabama on Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's Senior Night, 55-48. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It didn't have to be a work of art, but make no mistake: Only one result was an option on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.
"At the end of the day, you and I know we just had to win this game," John Calipari said. "Didn't matter the score. Could have been a half-court bank shot."
Having lost two in a row and facing scrutiny unprecedented even for a team Calipari dubbed a few weeks ago the most overanalyzed in sports, Coach Cal admitted afterward UK had to beat Alabama. But it wasn't to quiet the critics or to satisfy fans.
The Wildcats needed a victory after what had happened to their emotional state in suffering defeats to Arkansas and South Carolina and facing the fire that followed.
"They got a little rattled," Calipari said.
UK didn't end up needing that half-court shot, but the Cats' 55-48 win over Alabama wasn't pretty either. Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's 3-pointers to open the scoring for Kentucky may have seemed like a start to a storybook Senior Night, but the No. 25/24 (22-8, 12-5 Southeastern Conference) Cats would have to scratch and claw from start to finish to take down the Crimson Tide (12-18, 6-11 SEC).
"Obviously you guys saw, we definitely didn't play the best we could have played," Polson said. "It didn't help that we couldn't hit a shot for the most part of the game. We did what we had to do to win and I think just getting a win, honestly, was good for us no matter how it looked."
UK struggled from the field yet again in the win, shooting under 35 percent for the third game in a row. The Cats, however, were able to overcome numerous misses from around the basket with a 41-27 rebounding edge and 18-of-24 shooting from the free-throw line.
Julius Randle (12 points, 11 rebounds) posted his sixth double-double in seven outings, while Dakari Johnson provided a spark off the bench.
"I thought Dakari was outstanding," Calipari said.
The freshman -- who laughed with reporters about being in seventh grade when Hood began his UK career -- had nine points and five rebounds. He played a key role in the 20-6 run the Cats used to claim control in the first 10 minutes after halftime with both his play and his energy.
"It's just who I am," Johnson said. "I like to have fun on the court. Anything that has a positive impact on the team, I'm going to do it."
Johnson is coming off a national championship in his final high-school season and his freshman teammates experienced similar success as prep star. Polson and Hood, having spent a combined nine seasons at UK, just aren't accustomed to losing either.
That makes a little mental fragility after two losses in three days understandable.
"I think all of us were a little rattled to a certain degree," Hood said. "We just had to rediscover, redefine what we were and we did that to an extent tonight and now we gotta move forward."
Asked to clarify his meaning, Hood gave an answer that reflects his experience.
"Players are going to play," Hood said. "Coaches are going to coach. Officials are going to officiate. You can't get all boggled up with the officials and how they're calling the call or how the coach is on you, whatever. We're 18 year old men and above. I'm 22. We know how to play basketball at this point. Just gotta go play."
To Calipari, that simply means having fun.
"I just keep telling them, 'You have to have more fun than the other team,' " Calipari said. " 'You have to.' If we lose, I've said this for five years, who is taking responsibility? I will take responsibility. If we win, they get all the glory."
There's ample opportunity for glory in UK's regular-season finale on Saturday. The Cats will head to Gainesville, Fla., with a chance to end top-ranked Florida's unbeaten run through SEC play.
"We have a day off tomorrow, two days, a noon game down in Florida," Calipari said. "Absolute war. It will be a hard game for us. But it's a great game for us. It's exactly what this team needs."
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood will be honored at UK's Senior Night on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood grew up as so many youngsters in the Bluegrass do, dreaming of one day wearing a Kentucky uniform.
Nonetheless, their decisions to ultimately become Wildcats were very different.
Leading West Jessamine High School to the Sweet Sixteen, Polson played his way into a walk-on offer from John Calipari. Following in his father's footsteps as a lifelong UK fan, Polson didn't hesitate for a moment in bypassing a scholarship to play at Liberty.
"I knew that if I ever got the opportunity to play for Kentucky that I would always take it," Polson said.
Hood, on the other hand, was a blue-chip prospect from Madisonville, Ky., who drew interest from the likes of Florida, Duke and Tennessee. Kentucky was always on his list, but Hood was no lock to choose his home-state school.
"Once I started getting recruited it just became another school," Hood said. "And then Kentucky turned out to be the best fit for me, my family and where I should go. Now I'm here."
Not for much longer though.
On Tuesday, Polson and Hood will celebrate Senior Night before No. 25/24 UK (21-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) hosts Alabama (12-17, 6-10 SEC) in its home finale. Coach Cal confirmed on Monday the two fan favorites will start.
For Hood, it will be his first start in a UK uniform. Holding court for his pre-Senior Night press conference, Hood was asked whether he questions his decision to stick it out at Kentucky rather than transferring elsewhere to play a featured role. Hood was quick to say he has "no regrets at all."
"I wouldn't trade this for anything," Hood said. "My experience and my five years here have been the best time in my life. I don't know, I guess it's kind of hitting me right now that it's coming to an end."
Both Hood and Polson are the last men standing from their respective incoming classes. Most of their freshman classmates have all gone on to the NBA, which makes the combined nine years the two have spent Lexington seem like an eternity to those who follow the program.
Polson can relate in some ways, but another part of him feels like the summer of 2010 really wasn't that long ago.
"It does in a way (feel like he's been at UK for a long time)," Polson said. "At the same time it feels like it's flown by. I can remember freshman year, getting here, and it seems like forever ago that that was the case."
Hood is even further removed from his own arrival in Lexington. In the summer before what would have been his junior year, the 6-foot-7 guard suffered a torn ACL and missed the entire 2011-12 season. It cost him a chance to play on a national-championship team, but the injury has also become a blessing in disguise.
"It made me look at things in a different way, look at the relationships I had with people, helped me develop my sense for basketball, love for basketball in a different way and a new light," Hood said. "It just made me respect the game a lot more."
The lessons Hood learned through his injury and recovery from reconstructive surgery color his perspective on his UK career as it approaches its conclusion. The national title remains his favorite team memory, but his favorite individual moments don't have anything to do with the times he's gotten opportunities for extended playing time.
What Hood will remember are the bonds he has built.
"That's what'll mean the most to me after this," Hood said. "Just the relationships I've had with people and the connections."
Hood has played with an unprecedented parade of talent during his UK career. Beginning with classmates John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, Hood has called 17 NBA Draft picks and 13 first rounders teammates with players from this current team likely to join that group.
"It definitely means the world to me being able to call those guys up, chit-chat, talk, whatever," Hood said. "Need something basketball wise or just talk to them how they're playing, how they're doing even outside of basketball. Guys that I've met around here -- media guys, different people around the program -- it's good to connect with people and I don't think that the fans understand that part of it."
The other thing Hood and Polson both said fans don't understand about playing at UK is the work involved.
"I guess people a lot of times see the glamour of it and how everyone's a pop star and all that stuff," Polson said. "And that's really cool and being able to be a role model for kids is really cool. But a lot of hard work goes into it, and we like that. We call it the grind."
For Polson, that grind has resulted in a regular role each of the last two seasons. He averaged 13.8 minutes per game as a junior -- with his breakout game coming in a 10-point performance in a season-opening win over Maryland -- and 9.4 minutes per game this season.
Confident in his ability, Polson always believed playing time to be a possibility, though he concedes others thought otherwise.
"I mean, me personally, just being a competitor, I always thought that maybe down the road I would get significant minutes and be able to compete with Division I opponents," Polson said. "I don't know if a lot of people thought that -- even people close to me would ever think that -- just because Kentucky is on such a high level."
What the future holds for Polson and Hood is unclear. The pair expressed interest in going overseas to play professionally before the season, but the fact that they already have their degrees means they have options.
Hood hasn't ruled out coaching as a possibility. If he chooses that route, he already has a solid foundation having observed Coach Cal for so long.
"Well I know the Dribble-Drive offense in and out, so that's one thing," Hood said. "I know how to motivate players, how to make it a players' program and he's a good coach. He knows what he's doing. I would take everything from Cal."
But first, Polson and Hood want to finish their careers the right way. They believe it's up to them and their teammates to make that happen.
"No matter how he's coaching, we have to respond to that in a good way," Polson said. "We've had a lot of talks with him personally and us as a team, so I think we're in a good spot. No matter what happens, we know that, at the end of the day, we have to go out and perform. It's not anyone else; it's us as players have to perform."
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.
John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday morning, reflecting on Saturday's loss to South Carolina and looking ahead to the final week of the regular season. The theme, in Coach Cal's words: "At the end of the day whatever's going on with this team comes back to me."
On this week's matchups ... "Both teams are playing well. Alabama just had a great win against Auburn, their in-state rival. Played probably as well as they've played all year and Florida just keeps moving right along. I mean, everybody talks about the close games and this and this. Well, they could also beat you by 25. They're that good. So they deserve their ranking and we've got two great challenges for our team." On how frustrating the first 30 minutes of the South Carolina loss were in hindsight ... "Well, I wish I would have watched the last 10 minutes because I heard it was pretty good. But I will tell you that, you know, we're a team, like every other team out there, if--again, there's a lot of teams trying to figure out, OK, how do we do this? We went from playing Florida and Mississippi on the road thinking we have this figured out. 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. It's really funny: It was about a month ago that I said, 'Looks like I gotta coach this team like I'm 35 again.' And for a while, to get them to play harder, to get them to focus more, to get them to execute more, to let them know what was acceptable and not acceptable, that's what I talked about. But let me say this: I will be whoever I have to be because this isn't about me; it's about this team. And I've gotta 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. But, again, it was only a few weeks ago that's what we talked about. So as we go forward, the whole point of us: How do we get our defensive confidence? How do we get our offensive confidence? Well, we just had it 10 days ago, two weeks ago. How did that change? What did we do different? How did we think different? That's what we're going through now."
On players still losing focus at this point in the season ... "They're 18 years old. They're 18 and 19 and they're not machines. I've been through this. I've been, you know--and again, you've seen a little bit of everything and every team I've coached, it's a process and they're not one step up, the next step up. You know, I can remember in 2011, no one ever thought we'd win a game and we couldn't win a road game and all of a sudden we figured it out late and that's what's we're hoping with this team. And that would be our plan. My whole thing right now: Let's get this defensive confidence back. Let's get this offensive confidence back. What do we have to do in practice to build that? What do we have to do during the games to build that?"
On the importance of experience in college basketball ... "Well, there's no question the teams that are winning right now at the highest level all have some veteran guys. They've got seniors, a lot of them who were backups at one point in their career. And to play with all young guys like we are right now is really difficult. And what's difficult about it is, like I said, it was only two weeks ago we had played Florida and we'd have played at Mississippi and played as well as we had played all year and we're looking like we've got this thing figured out. But they're 18 and 19. You don't know what shoves them in another direction. Again, I was coaching hard for a while. Now you're trying to figure out what's the next thing. How do I have to do this? How do we have to practice to get them right? With a veteran team, as a coach you already know how they're going to respond. You have an idea. And they know how you're going to respond. So they know your response to not executing or, 'If I don't play hard, I know how he's going to respond.' Or, 'If I get physically pushed around, I know what's going to happen.' Well, we're all growing right now. And again, look, my team, we're talented enough to do what we want. We could beat anybody in the country. But we've also proven we can lose to anybody in the country. And so it is on us right now and basically it's on me. 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."
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant
On Alabama's upcoming matchups this week ... "Obviously our first game against Kentucky on the season. Watching them play, obviously extremely impressive. I know they're coming off two tough losses here in the last couple of games, but as talented of a team as we've faced all year. Senior Night in their building and coming off a road loss, I'm sure they'll be at their best. We'll have to get prepared for what we'll face against them tomorrow night. ..."
On what has gotten Levi Randolph going ... "I think he's playing really well. I think he's playing with a lot of confidence. Our team, I think, is feeding off of that of late, so we just need to have him keep with that mindset and stay aggressive and continue to step up and provide what our team needs."
On what gets a guy going like that late in the year ... "I think you see that all over the country. Sometimes, for whatever reason, guys will respond to certain messages or to certain things that happen over the course of a season. For Levi, obviously, the last four, five ballgames, I think he's really taken his game up another level and I think it's just a credit to him. He's worked extremely hard. He's a good player and I think we all feel like he's capable of doing what he's done for us. So, it's good to see him be able to step up and produce the way he is."
On if Trevor Releford should be a candidate for SEC Player of the Year ... "I think if you look at his numbers, you look at what he's been able to do night in and night out for a basketball team -- especially a year in SEC play when, from a scouting standpoint, teams obviously are aware of what he's capable and game plan to try to limit his opportunities - he's consistently been able to produce for our team. To me, obviously this is a one-year award, but over the course of his career he just continues to get better and improve and add things to his game. I think you look at the importance of him to our team in terms of being able to go out there and affect the game in a multitude of ways -- whether it be scoring points or getting his teammates opportunities to score points or making plays on the defensive end of the floor, getting a steal - I think he's been a guy that has affected the game in a lot of ways. Certainly he would have my vote, so I think he's had an outstanding year and I think he's very deserving of every consideration."