COLUMN: Cats rout Dillard, show toughness in win

Apparently the UK basketball team had the toughness UK head coach John Calipari thought it lacked in its first exhibition game against Pikeville on Monday, a 97-66 win, all along.

He said it was simply a matter of bringing that toughness out of his relatively youthful team. He was right.

The Dillard Bleu Devils (the New Orleans-based school opts for the French inspired, yet slightly less intimidating “Bleu,” rather than “Blue,” evidently) were leading the Cats 9-7 in the first five minutes of the first half.

The same Bleu Devils with one player taller than 6-foot-6 on their team were the second straight NAIA team in the span of less than a week to be holding its own on the hallowed court of Rupp Arena in the early going.

Then Calipari called a timeout, changed his lineup and the Cats were off to the races.

“We definitely started off slow, then we put those couple of subs in and it all just kept going steadily up from there and it never stopped,” senior forward Josh Harrellson said. “(Calipari said during the timeout) if we can’t play five little guys, the smaller lineup, then we’ll have to go with the bigger lineup because we just have more energy that way.”

Harrellson and fellow substitute, sophomore guard Jon Hood, brought some of that much needed energy and then some.

The Cats responded with a 13-0 run out of the timeout and at halftime had built a 57-22 margin lead thanks 62.2 percent field goal percentage and defensive pressure that limited Dillard to 28.6 percent shooting prior to the intermission.

It may seem like a little pep talk and a lineup tweak during a timeout went a long way, but Calipari’s desire to improve his team’s toughness began immediately after the Pikeville game.

“It’s been football practice,” Calipari said of the Cats’ practices this week. “Short of us putting them in helmets and pads that’s what it’s been.”

Calipari’s players seemed to have received his message.

“You got to go through every drill like you’re going to die,” Hood said. “Like you’re going to the electric chair, and that’s helped us a lot.”

The electric chair? That seems a little extreme, but that sort of mentality helped charge the Cats to a 68-point win over Dillard.

To be fair, Calipari probably expected as much entering this season because he’s been down this road before. With a team comprised mainly of freshmen for the second straight season, growing pains are only natural, but they don’t need to linger.

Calipari’s laid-back group of freshmen could coast in high school on talent alone, but that level of effort won’t cut it in major collegiate hoops.

“We’re not deep enough to have some guys not give us anything,” said Calipari, who added that he still wants more effort from freshman guard Doron Lamb and junior forward Eloy Vargas.

Still, the team has made strides in the toughness department since Monday’s win.

When asked earlier this week if he thought his team could double the 31-point margin of victory in its first exhibition game against Pikeville, freshman walk-on Jarrod Polson meekly replied: “We hope so.”

Can you blame Polson for his lack of conviction? UK didn’t exactly look phenomenal days ago, and it’s a tough task to beat any team by 60-plus points (even those schools with frou-frou French nicknames).

But it looks like these laid-back Cats were up to the tough task Friday night (thanks to a little nudge from their coach).