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Calipari wants Cats to get back to having fun on the court again

Kentucky coach John Calipari and the Wildcats will take on Florida in an ESPN Gameday encounter Saturday at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats are coming off a 76-68 loss at South Carolina earlier this week. (UK Athletics Photo)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

John Calipari knows all about Florida but wants his team to get mentally right going into Saturday’s ESPN GameDay showdown against the Gators.

“You gotta have fun playing and coaching,” he said. “When you’re not having fun, you gotta look back and say, ‘We must not be sharing the ball. We must not be playing with energy, spirit. We must — we’re being defensive when you’re being coached.’ All of the stuff that comes with ‘OK, I’m not having fun.’ We just gotta back – let’s have a ball playing and see what it does. Let’s go dive on the floor, let’s take charges, let’s make the extra pass, let’s talk, let’s high five.”

Calipari admitted the Wildcats (14-4, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) haven’t been having fun, to the point of self-destruction in close games. Kentucky blew a 14-point lead in the second half of a 76-68 loss at South Carolina earlier this week, the team’s second loss in the past five games.

“You got to figure out every game day – the whole day is (how) to get yourself into that frame of mind,” he said. “Don’t go through shoot-around and act like it doesn’t matter because then you play like the game doesn’t matter. Then all of the sudden, all of the other negative stuff comes with that.”

The Wildcats also are trying to overcome selfish issues that “a normal 17- and 18-year-old does” on the court. Calipari wants his team to “play together” be more “engaged” on offense and defense and “really be in huddles listening.”

“We’re playing a really good team, and we needed some time to focus on them. But at this point, we can’t,” Calipari said. “If we get this right and it’s not good enough, we’ll move on to the next game. But if we get it right, I’m going to feel good. If we don’t get it right, it doesn’t matter. At some point, this has got to change, and we got to focus. If you’re about everybody else in life, it’s easier. Life’s easier. You’re more worried about everybody else than yourself. Life’s easy. As a basketball player, it’s exactly the same thing.”

Although the setback against the Gamecocks into a two-way tie with Alabama for third place in the league standings, Kentucky’s players have moved past the disappointing loss.

“You have to focus on your next opponent and you can’t underestimate anybody in this league,” Kentucky forward PJ Washington said. “That’s what we’re trying to do and just trying to go out and get a win tomorrow versus Florida.”

Washington had been on a tear recently, especially offensively, but scored just 10 points in the loss at South Carolina, a disappointment to Calipari.

“You have some leadership that would step up and grab guys and make them change,” Calipari said. “Right now, it’s hard because no one will grab the guys and say you can’t do this or I’m going to tell coach to sit you out.

“We don’t have that right now. I was hoping it was PJ (Washington), but he took as step back. He didn’t have the same spirit. You can’t talk then. You got to be one of the guys. I need someone, maybe it’s Jarred (Vanderbilt). Maybe Jarred becomes that guy, I don’t know. We will see.”

Vanderbilt made his long-awaited debut against the Gamecocks and scored six points, grabbed five rebounds, had three assists and added a blocked shot.

“He played hard (and) he competed,” Calipari said. “He went after rebounds in traffic, he went and got balls. He was the only guy. We had guys play 32 minutes and get two rebounds.”

Washington said the biggest lesson the team learned in road setbacks at South Carolina and Tennessee were “to continue to fight for 40 minutes.”

“I feel like when we do a good job of that, we win games,” he said. “When we don’t, we lose games. We just gotta keep doing that and just get everybody else healthy and once we do that we’ll be all right.”

Calipari hopes to get guard Quade Green back against the Gators. Green has missed the past three games because of a back injury and his absence came to fruition against the Gamecocks.

“He leads (and) he talks,” Calipari said. “He’s one of the most talkative guys so it’s affected us, but it’s given us a chance to look at other things and other players. You know, if we would’ve slipped by that last game, it would’ve been, how do we do this without the kid? But unfortunately we didn’t and we saw some flaws and you get to see them.

“It’s probably game-time (decision) to see if he’ll get some minutes. It’d be nice if he could give us some minutes just so Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) can sit out five minutes a half or so, but we’ll see.”

Gametracker: Florida at Kentucky, 8:15 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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