LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — John Calipari knows a good team when he sees one and the Kentucky coach isn’t sure what direction the Wildcats want to go nine games into his ninth season with the Wildcats.
“I’ve done this 30 years, I'm not saying I'm a genius,” Calipari said. “I’m not saying I'm the best. I'm not saying that I could even do this. But I do know what winning looks like, and it doesn't look like what we're doing right now.
“If you want to argue with me, I can't get us to where we need to go.”
Calipari is expecting more than what his team is giving and will be yearning for more during the remainder of the non-conference schedule.
“The issue with this team — and it’s just going to take time and I’ve got to demand it — if you demand a lot, you will get it. If you accept mediocrity, you’re going to get it every time, especially with young kids,” Calipari said.
Kentucky (7-1) did post a 79-70 win over Harvard for its fifth straight victory Saturday, the first of six games to close out the calendar year, but failed to put the Crimson away after building a 20-point lead with eight minutes remaining.
Despite putting together an impressive 13-0 run against Harvard during a three-minute span in the second half, Calipari’s squad didn’t score a field goal in the final 2:31 of the game and made just one of their final eight shots.
One minute the Wildcats care flourishing and the next they’re reverting, a frustrating trend Calipari would like to see eventually come to an end.
“There are stretches that we don't play winning basketball,” Calipari said. “I’m just going to make whatever play I want to make. We broke off plays at the end and guys just -- why did you do that? Well, I was thinking of the tree, and then the bike came out, and the car almost hit me. What? I mean, why did you do that? So we had a bunch of those today.”
Those lapses — mostly breakdowns on defense — are preventing seventh-ranked Kentucky from becoming the defensive team Calipari has envisioned since the beginning of the season.
“We got some guys that should be better defenders that are just getting beat,” he said. “… We're in the top 10 defensive efficiency in the country, and I'm not pleased. What? Because I think we could even be better.”
The lackluster defensive performance allowed Harvard to keep the game close by knocking down shots from the perimeter. The Crimson connected on 12 3-pointers, including seven in the first half.
“We get up and we have two or three guys that back-up and stand up and lose their man,” Calipari said. “You know, we break off. But, again, it's what freshmen do. All right, I did it. Now I'm tired and I'm going to take a few plays off. You can't do that here. You don't take plays off.”
Sacha Killeya-Jones blamed the breakdowns on the team’s youthfulness.
“He knows we can be better,” Jones said. “We have potential to be a great team and that’s what he’s pushing us to. It’s his job to push us to be better and we’re going to do that.”
Kentucky held an edge on the boards against the Crimson, 37-36 but most of those rebounds were on the defensive end. The Wildcats managed just eight offensive rebounds and just eight second-chance points.
“I’m not pleased with our rebounding, and we're a pretty good rebounding team,” Calipari said. “Well, why don't we try to be the best? You can't be the best with all freshmen. Cool out, man. You're old right now. Just relax. You're getting angry and nasty, you're too old to be doing this anymore.”
Calipari continues to emphasis his team’s youth with five freshman starters but is expecting the same results his previous eight teams have produced during his tenure with the Wildcats.
“I’m asking the impossible of this team, but that's what I do for a living,” he said. “I’m asking individuals to do stuff that's probably impossible for them to do right now. But I'm asking them to try and strive and do it. There are guys that will breakthrough, and there are other guys that will look for alibis or whatever. This team is a bunch of good guys. They're really trying. They're really trying to please me. They just don't know yet, and they shouldn't. I'm playing all freshmen. They shouldn't. But I'm expecting them to make strides, especially when we get up a bunch that we don't revert.”
Although Calipari isn’t sure what lies ahead for his team, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker sees a bright future ahead for the Wildcats.
“They play really hard (and) they’re unselfish,” Amaker said. “Coach Cal has done an amazing job with all his years in coaching, and certainly with what he’s done here. I just see this team as a ball club that has a chance to be one of the best in the country if not the best. And I think as they continue to grow and get better, I can’t see why they won’t.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Monmouth at Madison Square Garden, Saturday, noon. TV/Radio: ESPNU, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.