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Kentucky's midseason growing pains are nothing new to John Calipari

Louisville Courier-Journal logo Louisville Courier-Journal 1/9/2019 Tim Sullivan

a man wearing a suit and tie: Kentucky's John Calipari said to his players during the game against Texas A&M: "I'm not going to stop coaching them. I'm going to tell you when you're doing right. I'm going to tell you when you're doing wrong." © Matt Stone/Courier Journal Kentucky's John Calipari said to his players during the game against Texas A&M: "I'm not going to stop coaching them. I'm going to tell you when you're doing right. I'm going to tell you when you're doing wrong." LEXINGTON, Ky. – Say this for John Calipari: He is never stumped for a stump speech.

The University of Kentucky’s basketball coach has a remarkable knack for staying on message without sounding entirely scripted; for finding slightly new variations on a threadbare theme. He is like the farmer who is forever plowing the same ground, but always careful to rotate his crops.

“At some point, if this team is going to be what I believe they can be, they have to be empowered,” Calipari said after Tuesday’s 85-74 victory over Texas A&M. “That means that I shouldn’t even talk about effort and intensity and fight. Shouldn’t even come out of my mouth, not once.”

Read more: 3 keys for Louisville basketball to land a victory over Pittsburgh

Calipari’s goal, repeated annually, is for his players to take charge and spare him the aggravation of micromanagement. His frustration, also annual, is that his players are seldom prepared for that responsibility on the same timetable as their coach.

Is there an echo in Rupp Arena? Sure sounds like it.

“But the other side of it is, we’ve got to win, which means I’m going to do whatever I need to do to get these guys over the finish line,” Calipari said Tuesday. “Today, I was like dragging, literally dragging. I’m exhausted right now.”

Like so many of the midseason games during Calipari’s one-and-done era, Kentucky’s latest victory was more exasperating than exhilarating. After spotting the Aggies a 10-0 start, and then rallying to lead by as many as 14 points, the Wildcats watched their advantage trimmed to a single basket with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation.

At times, the Wildcats looked like a well-oiled machine with plenty of spare parts, getting productive play off the bench (particularly from Immanuel Quickley, who had 10 points and three steals in 13 minutes) and responding to pressure by sinking 21 of 23 free throws.

“They have four or five guys who are capable of getting double figures,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said, “and PJ Washington is a monster.”

See also: After Alabama loss, where does Kentucky basketball rank in the SEC?

At other points, Kentucky broke down defensively or played strangely soft. At times, UK players fail to exert themselves for reachable rebounds. Except for A&M’s sloppiness – which included, but was not limited to 19 turnovers – this night had most of the elements of an ambush.

“I think we took a step back, definitely at the Alabama game and here tonight, too,” freshman guard Tyler Herro said after a 21-point performance. “I think (there’s) just lack of focus in some areas and defensively, going under ball screens on some guys when we should be going over.’’

Though Tuesday’s outcome was an improvement on UK’s loss at Alabama on Saturday, neither game portended greatness. While it is risky to reach conclusions about another freshman-dominated Kentucky team in January, Calipari says he has seen some regression since the Cats’ December victories over North Carolina and Louisville.

“We’ve started becoming a team, I think, out of fear,” Calipari said. “We had two games (against North Carolina and Louisville) that were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we can’t win either one of these,’ and out of fear, I think they went like this ...”

He pulled his hands together to illustrate unity.

“And then we won (those) two, and then all of a sudden we’re like. . .”

He pulled his hands apart to illustrate separation.

By now, Big Blue Nation should be intimately familiar with this process and with the inevitable ebb and flow of a gifted group of inexperienced individuals finding their way toward a collective identity. Though Calipari sometimes conveys a bemused irritation over the pace of his team’s progress – breakdowns in execution, he claimed, were “driving me crazy” – he never seems resigned, much less panicked.

He has been down this road too often to be bothered by its bumps.  

Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, tsullivan@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/tims.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky's midseason growing pains are nothing new to John Calipari

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