Calipari predicts Champions Classic showdown with Kansas will be ‘hard game’ for Wildcats

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P.J. Washington and Kentucky will take on Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night in Chicago. Washington had a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds in a 73-69 win over Vermont Sunday. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

John Calipari isn’t sure if his team will be ready for the big stage when Kentucky takes on Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic Tuesday night in Chicago.

“This is going to be a really hard game for us to win,” Calipari said Monday. “The good news is, thank goodness we played at 3:30 so that the staff could prepare. Like, I’ve watched enough tape right now that I have a feel. I’m more concerned about how we’re playing than how Kansas plays.”

The seventh-ranked Wildcats (2-0) won their first two games, including a 73-69 triumph over Vermont Sunday and will be playing for the third time in five days. Kansas rolled to a 92-56 victory over Tennessee State in its opener Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse.

“Kansas is flying,” Calipari said of the Jayhawks. “They’re shooting 25 to 30 3s. They’re going to shoot them whether we’re zone, man, triangle-and-two, box-and-one. They’re taking 25 to 30 3s. They’ll still run some of their weave into pick-and-roll. They do a lot of pick-and-roll to try throw skip passes to shoot. I mean, they’re who they always are. They play tough. They’re a good defensive team.”

Overall, Kentucky has compiled a 4-2 mark in the Champions Classic and has recorded a pair of victories over the Jayhawks in the prestigious event, including a 72-40 win three years ago in Indianapolis. Kansas has won the last two regular-season games against the Wildcats and dealt Kentucky a 79-73 setback in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge last year at Rupp Arena.

Although Kansas, ranked No. 4 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, worries Calipari, the Kentucky coach is more concerned about his own team. Through the first two games, Calipari has been pleased with his team’s intelligence and overall ability to pick up the team’s offensive schemes.

“I’m pleased that they’re a really smart team that is really – they’re trying to grasp what we’re doing,” Calipoari said. “And I like that.”

Calipari’s biggest concern is rebounding and perimeter defense, both of which were an issue in the first two games of the regular season and during the team’s three preseason contests.

“We’re not as good – well, we were (Sunday) because PJ (Washington) rebounded,” he said., “I thought we’d be that kind of rebounding team that we were yesterday. That’s who I thought we’d be so, I would tell you that I’m pretty pleased with that. We’re just getting beat on the dribble by everybody. And you can’t – defense starts on the ball. It always has.”

The win over Vermont was closer than expected but Calipari liked the way the Wildcats were able to overcome the Catamounts and the Kentucky coach learned a little more about his team.

“I love it when we win,” he said. “I had a great time yesterday. The game got close. I’m just happy – we needed a close game, but we didn’t need to lose it. But we needed a close game. I found out Kevin (Knox) could make a shot. We were awful down the stretch. One-handed rebounds, one-handed catches all led to baskets. Missed defensively twice. I mean, there’s stuff that, that’s what I show them on the tape.”

Calipari doesn’t expect things to come easy for his squad, considering the youthfulness of his squad and is trying to keep an even keel.

“I’m fighting to get my mind set in that I’ve got to stay in the moment of all this and I’ve got to be as positive for these guys as I can,” he said. “I’ve got to try to build this toward the end of the year. You’re seeing if our guards can’t stay in front of anybody we’ll get beat by 30 up there. Thirty. If we don’t fight – because this team flies – you have to fight to get back and, you ready, and find shooters. You can’t run back (panting). No, where are these shooters? All the stuff I’m talking about, I am in deep agony.”

Gametracker: East Tennessee State at Kentucky, Friday, 7 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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