Calipari Eager to Take Empowered Team into Postseason

In order to provide fans with additional coverage for the 2016 postseason, and will be sharing stories throughout tournament play to help feed the never-ending appetite the Big Blue Nation has for all things Kentucky basketball.

John Calipari – save for a few minutes on NBA Draft night each year or after Kentucky won the national championship in 2012 – is never satisfied.

He does like the way his team is shaping up entering the postseason though.

“I'm pleased,” Coach Cal said on Monday’s Southeastern Conference Coaches’ Teleconference. “I've been pleased with this team.”

UK has had more than its share of ups and downs this season. Injuries have stunted the team’s growth and a young roster has understandably taken time to adjust to playing together, leading to some head-scratching moments coming off a season in which the Wildcats made a run at a perfect season.

But through the losses – ones against Ohio State, LSU, Auburn and Tennessee stick out – UK has stayed the course. 

“We're just trying to continue to build confidence from within,” Calipari said. “Having each guy understand what it means to take responsibility for it, to not enable guys when they're not playing well or not playing with confidence. That's been our mission here for the last three weeks.”

Over those three weeks, UK has won four of six games. The losses came on the road to likely NCAA Tournament teams and the Cats closed the regular season with two of their better performances of the season, easily dispatching Florida and LSU.

As has been the case throughout the season, Tyler Ulis is the anchor.

Awards are already rolling in for the sophomore, most notably First-Team All-America honors from USA Today and being named a finalist for Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year. Ulis is averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 assists on the season, but has saved his best for last. He’s dished out 10 or more assists in six of his last nine games and scored 20 or more points in 11 of his last 20 games.

“Tyler (is) leading this team and just doing wonderful things to put people in positions where they can play more confident,” Calipari said.

When it comes to growing confidence, no one tops Skal Labissiere.

The reigning SEC Freshman of the Week is fresh off the best two-game stretch of his college career He averaged 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in those two aforementioned victories.

“I'm happy for him,” Calipari said. “Obviously he makes our team better, but I'm happy for him. I've seen that he's finally bought into the process, and it takes time. We've had guys that take some years to buy in, and we've had guys that take some months to buy in and then all of a sudden they explode.”

All season, Calipari has had to move players around and create patchwork lineups try to create some interior support for the consistently dynamic Ulis, Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe. If Labissiere’s explosion continues, UK could go from being a dangerous team with arguably the nation’s best backcourt to a well-rounded national-title contender.

“What Skal does for us, the biggest thing is Marcus Lee is able to play to his strengths, which is his energy, his offensive rebounding, tip dunks, dunking balls, being around that goal,” Calipari said. “He’s not asked to do more. He’s asked to play right into his sweet spot, because Skal can do all the scoring and all the other things that you want that big man to do, especially shooting on the perimeter.”

Add in a now-healthy Derek Willis – who returned to the lineup on Saturday after missing three games due to a sprained ankle – and UK finally looks to have a full complement inside.

“And Derek also helps with that, so now you have other guys that aren’t asked to do things that would make them less than confident,” Calipari said. “They’re all in positions where: I can do this. It’s who I am and I can be confident about it. Skal being plugged in really kind of puts the pieces where they need to be.”

With the SEC Tournament set to start for UK on Friday at 7 p.m. against the winner of Ole Miss and Alabama, Calipari is in a familiar position.

He likes his team.

“I love what I'm seeing,” Calipari said. “I love how the kids are responding. And they're taking it on themselves. Their confidence, they own it.”