Boil down all that happened in a three-point win against Tennessee, and you get this from head coach John Calipari: “If we want to be unique and special, we’re either going to get tougher and negate the physical play people are using on us, or we’re just going to be another team out there trying to win as many as we can. That’s it.”
Ultimatum given. Get tougher.
On Friday, Calipari said his team had two issues to fix: toughness and communication. He saw the latter improve against the Volunteers. He saw the former repeated.
“Same guys,” Calipari said. “Pushed, shoved, couldn’t come up with balls, and were accepting it.”
“We better get tougher, or we’ve got issues.”
In a way, the fact that Calipari is so focused on only one issue is a good thing. That means everything else is more or less falling into place. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis have grabbed the reigns for this team. Terrence Jones appears on his way back — maybe not to being a 52-point scoring superstar, but to being what he needs to be — and while Doron Lamb and Darius Miller can get better, Calipari is confident they will make it.
Which leaves the issue of toughness. Against Tennessee, a team loaded with big post players, it showed.
Tennessee freshman Jarnell Stokes proved it the most. In his first game of the season — he was in high school until the spring — Stokes didn’t know much about the offense, didn’t know much about the college game. But his massive 6-foot-8, 250-pound frame was enough to push UK around. He finished with 9 points on 4 of 5 shooting.
While UK outrebounded Tennessee by three — and better yet, holding the Volunteers to 9 out of 34 possible offensive rebounds — Calipari thought the margin was misleading.
“The reality is, every tough ball, they got it,” Calipari said. “Until the very end.”
Part of that problem, as Calipari sees it, is players willing to concede rebounds to Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis. The pair account for 17.9 of UK’s 40.7 rebounds per game. A better team effort is needed.
“I’d rather them bump heads and knock it out of bounds against us,” Calipari said, referring to the rest of the team, “than have us go half speed and have their guy get it.”
As it stands, UK being out-toughed allows the opposition to dictate the game. Calipari wants that role to be reversed.
“Before this ends,” Calipari said, “if we want to be special, you’ll be able to watch us and say, that doesn’t have an effect on him anymore.”
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