Cats Prepare for Tournament’s ‘Hardest Game’

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In tournament play, the higher-seeded teams typically play “easier” games in the opening rounds, and more difficult games as the tournament progresses. 

With No. 2-seeded Kentucky (23-8, 13-5 Southeastern Conference) facing the winner of Ole Miss-Alabama on Friday in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament, head coach John Calipari may beg to differ.

“The hard thing about the first game is Alabama and Mississippi are both really good teams,” Coach Cal said. “The hard thing becomes that they’ve played and they’ve got momentum and you’re walking in not knowing, and you had to lay around all day. The hardest game is the first game. After that you can still lose but the hardest game is playing that first one when they have already played a game.”

Kentucky beat Ole Miss, the No. 7 seed, in its only game against the Rebels this season, 83-61. That game was both teams’ conference opener on Jan. 2, and both teams are far different today than they were back then.

The Wildcats went 2-0 against Alabama, the SEC Tournament’s No. 10 seed, winning 77-61 on Jan. 9 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and then 78-53 on Feb. 23 at Rupp Arena.

While Kentucky has had success against both teams this season, Calipari knows each presents challenges. But per usual with the Hall of Famer, he is more concerned with his own team than its future opponent, and he likes what he’s seeing as tournament play begins.

“My message will be real simple for them and that’s one, be the best version of you,” Coach Cal said. “Just know what that looks like. We know it. We’ve defined it. You have too. Then the second thing is, be about your teammate. Now’s the time to totally lose yourself because being your best version should come easily now.”

UK finally at full strength

It’s been a long time coming, but finally Kentucky is playing at full strength, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

With the return of Derek Willis, who had missed three games with a sprained ankle, as well as Alex Poythress, who had missed the five games prior to Willis’ absence with a right knee injury, Kentucky will play Friday with a full roster for just the third time since Feb. 2.

And if the past two games are any indication, a healthy UK is a team most teams in the postseason won’t want to face.

“What we have for the first time and no one is really talked about it is I have a full team,” Coach Cal said. “Now you’ve got Dom (Hawkins) healthy. You’ve got Derek healthy. You’ve got Alex healthy. We haven’t had that all year, and so we’re coming together at the right time of the year. We’re playing confidently.”

A full lineup does a lot for the Wildcats, including giving them options in how they attack defenses. If UK’s opponent Friday decides to play more zone, Willis figures to get more playing time with his 3-point shooting prowess. Additionally, a full lineup also gives Coach Cal more options in case of future injury, foul trouble or poor play.

And though Calipari would have liked to have played without injuries popping up every week or so during the regular season, there is a silver lining in the Wildcats having to adopt a “next man up” attitude this season.

“It’s been the best thing because all of a sudden Isaac (Humphries) got a chance, Charles Matthews got a chance, Derek Willis got a chance, Marcus Lee got a chance,” Coach Cal said. “They all got their opportunity. Dom has had his chance. So, we’re walking into the tournament with a deep team.”

Swaggy Cal? No, just Cal

Observers have noticed a different John Calipari when Kentucky is playing well.

It’s an extra-confident version of Calipari’s public persona UK fans have taken to calling “Swaggy Cal.”

Coach Cal doesn’t quite get it.

“I don’t know what Swaggy Cal is,” Calipari said. “I try to be the same guy all the time.”

That might not convince Swaggy Cal believers, but Calipari doesn’t much care. He’s only interested in his own personal approach to coaching his team in the pressure cooker that is Kentucky basketball.

“This isn’t life or death for me,” Calipari said. “You don’t look at me and say, ‘Oh my god.’ It’s not life or death, because if it was I’d die all the time.”

Instead, Calipari finishes his day and enjoys life with his wife, Ellen. Oftentimes, that involves reality television, specifically “Alaskan Bush People.”

“I don’t take it home,” Calipari said. “If you talk to my wife, we never—she’s like some of you; she knows nothing about basketball. So we don’t talk basketball. I go home and we watch the Alaska stuff.”

Discovery Channel shows and Swaggy Cal denials aside, Calipari does like his team.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” Calipari said. “I enjoy these kids. Take great pride in seeing their growth individually and as a group and want to win every game I coach.”

Cats to make most of SEC Tournament

John Calipari has never hidden his feelings about conference tournaments.

He didn’t hide them on Thursday either.

“One of the reasons I don’t like conference tournaments, it hasn’t seemed to have improved our seed if we do well, and there’s games Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Calipari said. “Well, there’s nothing that we do all year that’s Friday, Saturday, Sunday – three games. The NCAA Tournament is a game, a day off, a game.”

Calipari has come to appreciate the SEC Tournament more over the years due to the way UK fans travel for it, but it’s still just preparation for the real thing a week later.

“So, we’re here to, let’s tune it up, let’s get better, let’s play with intensity, let’s be together, let’s be about each other, let’s play how we have to play for next weekend,” Calipari said.

That doesn’t mean he’s not going to coach to win the thing.

“You just don’t like the fact that it’s three games in three days, but it is,” Calipari said. “We’ll use it, and I’m not – believe me, if we’re up 12, I’m not taking guys out. We’ll play to win the game and figure out tomorrow tomorrow.”

Considering UK has won three SEC Tournaments in Calipari’s six seasons and advanced to the final in two of the others, even the fans who take the tournament most seriously would be hard-pressed to quibble with him.