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Keith Taylor: Calipari wants UK to get tougher, establish post presence against EKU

John Calipari knows his team isn’t going to produce blowouts eight games into the season.

“We’re not going to be 20 points up on people,” he said. “These are going to be seven, eight-point games and you gotta battle it through. You gotta just have enough grit to go get balls and make a play at the end. We’ve shown we can do it.”

 Kentucky coach John Calipari wants the Wildcats to get tougher in the post and provide an intimidating presence (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky coach John Calipari wants the Wildcats to get tougher in the post and provide an intimidating presence (Bill Thiry Photo)

Calipari will be looking for more fight and grit from his players and hopes the fifth-ranked Wildcats can show signs of improvement against Eastern Kentucky Wednesday night.

“You need a post presence, and it could come from Alex (Poythress) and it doesn’t have to come from Skal (Labissiere),” Calipari said. “Alex, you be that guy. It could come from our guards, where we post them up. So it’s important that you have a post presence, that the other team knows you can post it up, but it isn’t about that. This whole thing is to battle, fight, come up with 50-50 balls and dive on the floor.”

Five days removed from an 87-77 loss at UCLA, Kentucky has spent the majority of its practice time developing a tougher mentality, especially in the post.

“They got it,” Calipari said. “We had a good practice (Monday). It was really grueling to be honest with you. It’s what they need and we’re trying to hold them to a high standard in what we’re accepting.”

Ultimately, Calipari said his goal is to give sole authority to his players but isn’t ready to pass on the responsibility to his squad just yet.

“I want to empower this team, but when they are where they are right now that’s my job,” Calipari said. “That’s not a teammate to do that. When everybody is doing their thing, everybody’s trying, everybody’s playing and battling and you’re fighting, then they come together and they really accept what each other has to do and they can be empowered. We’re not close to that right now.”

Calipari isn’t sure whether or not his most experienced post player, Marcus Lee, will be able to play against the Colonels. Lee suffered an unknown head injury early in the loss to the Bruins and without the services of Lee in the post, the Wildcats struggled. Skal Labissiere scored just six points and grabbed one rebound in his last outing as Kentucky’s post players failed to pick up the slack vacated by Lee.

“It’s really hard when the other guy comes in playing for their lives — like, they’re playing for their life, and you know they’re going to play well and they’re playing like it’s the biggest game for them this century, then you don’t battle,” the Kentucky coach said. “That’s where we are right now. How we were even in the game the way we played, without Marcus, I don’t even know.”

Scouting the Colonels: Eastern’s offense ranks sixth in the country in scoring (90.4 points per game), sixth in field goal percentage (52.4) and fifth in three-point field goal percentage (44.3).

“We really shoot the basketball — really, really shoot it,” Eastern coach Dan McHale said. “We’re always going to be in games, because we shoot it so well.”

McHale, a student manager at Kentucky from 1998-2001, graduated from UK in 2001 with a degree in business administration. He has also served as an assistant coach under Louisville coach Rick Pitino and was on Richard Pitino’s staff at Minnesota before accepting the EKU post last spring.

McHale is looking forward to returning to Rupp Arena, where the Colonels (7-2) have lost 11 times since the two teams started playing each other again in 1991. Overall, Eastern is 0-12 against the Wildcats.

“It’s huge,” McHale said. “As long as I’m the coach here, I want to play everyone in the state. It’s great for my guys to play other teams in the state. It’s also great for the city of Richmond and for EKU in general. The chance to play in Rupp Arena is tremendous.”

Game tracker: Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Wednesday. TV/Radio: ESPN2, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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