There were plenty of positive signs for the young UK men’s basketball team in a 75-68 loss to Duke Monday, but head coach John Calipari doesn’t want his players to focus on the moral victories.
“The worst thing you can do is listen to everybody say, ‘Hey, that was OK. We’re going to be great in March,’” he said Thursday. “Look, we could have won that game. We didn’t deserve to win the game, but I don’t care about that. We still could have won that game.
“We broke down late again, just like we did against Maryland — same kind of issues, same guys. We’re going to be in close games all year and the last two or three minutes are going to be critical to how we play.”
John Calipari. (Photo by Jon Hale)
With that mantra in mind, Calipari has zeroed in on several areas for improvement for the Wildcats beginning Friday versus Lafayette.
Observers were quick to note the ability of the Duke players to exploit UK freshman forward Nerlens Noel leaving his feet to block shots, but Calipari doesn’t have any problem with the way Noel performed in Atlanta.
“Everybody can say, ‘Well, they’re leaving their feet and that’s why the basket is open.’ No. We did the same thing last year, but when he left his feet someone got his back,” he said. “Now we’ve got guys (when) he leaves his feet they’re running the wrong way.”
Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer was the star of UK’s season-opening win versus Maryland with 19 points but was limited to just five points against the Blue Devils. After the game, Calipari noted Duke was able to take away some of Wiltjer’s strengths, but Thursday he made no secret of his need for Wiltjer to improve.
“Kyle cannot get the shots on his own,” Calipari said. “We’re going to have to help him. He did not play as hard as he needs to play.”
“They did a good job of getting to me on the three point line, not giving me any easy looks,” Wiltjer said. “In the future, I’ve just got to make stronger, quicker moves in the post when they’re playing me out there, just getting the ball rather than shooting threes.”
UK scored just two fast break points in the first half versus Duke.
“We’re going to work on that today a little bit,” Calipari said. “If guys aren’t sprinting, we’re going to stop and do some running. We’ve just got to get in the mentality (where we don’t) just think it’s OK to jog the court.”
If the Wildcats are to improve upon those identified problem areas against Lafayette, it’s likely they will have to do it without sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow for the second consecutive game.
Harrow continues to suffer from fatigue with an undisclosed illness. On Thursday, Calipari said Harrow was better but still not at 100 percent.
Harrow’s absence versus Duke hurt UK, Calipari said.
“We were a little bit short last game,” he said. “We know it. But you’ve got to look at the kid’s health first.”
Calipari said he hasn’t heard any results from the blood tests given to Harrow earlier this week. He was asked if Harrow’s issue extended beyond physical struggles.
“We don’t think so,” Calipari said. “We’re just trying to tell him, ‘You’ve got to get energy. You’ve got to get your energy. You’ve got to play at a higher level.’ I think he’ll be fine.”
After back-to-back marquee games to start the season, UK’s schedule appears to lighten with games against Lafayette, Morhead State and Long Island in the next week.
Still, Calipari doesn’t think his team can take any opponents for granted.
“It’s let’s see if we can play a whole possession against a team that’s going to hold the ball,” he said. “Let’s see if we take off a minute and a half on this team and then I’ve got to call a timeout because it’s a tie ballgame.”
Mays, UK’s lone senior to play significant minutes this season, agrees.
“Even though we’re not playing the Dukes and the Marylands, we’re not going to let up any,” he said. “We want to approach every game like we’re playing a Duke or Maryland so we can get better. We don’t want to develop bad habits playing different teams.”