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Calipari tweaks routine as UK gets back on track with win over MSU

PJ Washington scored a career-high 22 points to lead the Wildcats to a 78-65 win over Mississippi State Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. (Tammie Brown/Kentucky Today)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky didn’t play its best but did just enough to get back on track.

The Wildcats (15-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) snapped a two-game losing streak with a 78-65 win over Mississippi State Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. Coming off losses to South Carolina and Florida, respectively, Kentucky used a late run down the stretch to hold off the Bulldogs.

The two setbacks last week knocked the Wildcats out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll and leaves the team scrambling to right the ship with two months remaining in the regular season. Although the Wildcats made mistakes down the stretch, Kentucky coach John Calipari was pleased with his team’s overall finish.

“We made free throws … makes a big difference,” he said. “But the play that drove me crazy, we are up nine and rebounding the ball with three minutes to go, now we’re going to grind it and get this to 11 or 12. The dude’s throwing ahead like we are still trying to run and low it to a guy who shoots a three. What are you doing? Why would you take 12 seconds? Then the same guy that threw it ahead, you ready, fouls the three-point shooter. And now all of a sudden it’s anybody’s ballgame again. That drives me crazy because that means you’re just not thinking basketball for your team.

“That’s not acceptable right now with where we are trying to just win games. But the finish of the game, other than that, we grounded out, we got the ball where we wanted to, we made layups, and we made free throws.

In addition to making free throws, Kentucky (15-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) outscored the Bulldogs 22-13 in the final 12 minutes for its 11th straight victory over Mississippi State and avoided a third straight setback for the first time in Calipari’s nine-year tenure as coach of the Wildcats and improved to 4-1 in bounce-back games this season.

In an effort to get his players to develop a sense of urgency, Calipari instituted a platoon similar to the one he used three years ago when the Wildcats finished 38-1 before losing to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. Calipari said the rotation means he will do more “coaching, which I’ve got to do with this team.”

“We did a rotation prior to the game and we tried to stick with it but we had foul trouble, and we’re going to stay with that,” he said. “In other words, guys are going to play three, four minutes, and if you’re really playing well, maybe you play an extra minute and if you’re not playing so well, maybe you come out a minute early. But there’s going to be a rotation, and instead of — they have got to take off — instead of being subbed now, well, every time — no, no, you’re in a rotation. So that’s done.”

The biggest factor in the rotation is Wenyen Gabriel, who scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds against the Bulldogs.

“The common denominator was Wenyen and Sacha a little bit but it was Wenyen. Every combination that played well and had good numbers had Wenyen in it. The others had Wenyen and Sacha (Killeya-Jones),” Calipari said. “Like in one of the combinations, but Sacha was the other one. So we’re doing a rotation so those guys play more.”

Calipari also devised a plan to get his team to share the ball more and become more productive on offense. Kentucky had 11 assists officially against the Bulldogs.

“I’m trying again to make them willing passers,” he said. “let me tell you how you get an assist. You get a normal assist. You pass it to somebody and score. You ready for this assist?” Calipari said. “You pass it to somebody and they miss the shot. Still giving you an assist. You pass it to somebody and they get fouled. Still giving you an assist. If you’re a big man and you outlet the ball and that guy leads to a break, I’m giving you an assist. If you throw it ahead and someone else throws it is to somebody else for an assist, I’m giving you an assist, too. There’s a hundred ways now to get an assist. But to get an assist you must start by passing the ball.”

Calipari admitted that his team is “not there yet” and said the Wildcats still have trust issues.

“There’s still not a lot of trust within and even trust in what we’re trying to get them to do,” he said. “Just not a lot of trust yet. Part of it is each guy trying to establish who they are as a player. When you’ve got five guys trying to figure out who they are as a player, doesn’t it look like they are a little confused offensively? It does. When you’ve got everybody that’s comfortable in their own skin, and who they are as a player, and what they are being asked to do, it starts rolling. We’re just not there yet.”

As with any young team, Calipari still has issues with his team’s immaturity.

“We had some guys pouting today,” he said. “We’re just not there yet. And my thing is, when this becomes a good team if anybody does that, and I told them after, you can take a guy out of the rotation.”

The Kentucky coach said his main goal is to get the Wildcats to become a better team, collectively and individually.

“Every day my whole mentality is how do I make each individual better and I’m thinking about them writing notes to myself, how do I make this team better,” he said. “ Told the guys, I mean, I’m about you. This staff is about you. So when we make you uncomfortable so that you can play that way and be comfortable playing uncomfortable, it isn’t because we’re mad or hate you. If we’re getting on you to hold you responsible, accountable, hey, we’re about you. How can that upset you?”

PJ Washington sparked the Wildcats with 22 points, followed by Kevin Knox with 19 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 16.

Gametracker: Kentucky at West Virginia, 7 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 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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