By Glenn Osborne
Ten days will have passed since Kentucky last took the basketball floor for a game that counted when the Wildcats tip off Southeastern Conference play Tuesday night against Mississippi at Rupp Arena.
But that doesn’t mean the squad hasn’t experienced a week and a half worth some of its best competition of the season during that time span. They’ve endured “Camp Cal,” a yearly holiday ritual that head coach John Calipari uses to put his team through multiple workouts each day while the UK campus is closed to the rest of the student body.
There are no limits on how much his team can practice and Calipari makes good use of the time.
During that time, the White platoon plays regularly against the Blue and to call the action “practice” is a huge understatement.
“A few days ago, the White smashed the Blue and then two days ago the Blue absolutely smashed the White,” Calipari said. “They had no chance. That’s how it’s been and if you don’t show (up), then that’s what’s happening. If one guy on your team doesn’t show (up), then that’s what happens. When they’re really going at each other, what’s happening is it’s like touch and go and it gets physical and emotional and they talk.”
So while media experts and SEC coaches have taken turns speculating whether any conference school can give the topped-ranked Wildcats a run and block a perfect season, UK is likely seeing its stiffest on-court challenge on the Joe Craft Center practice floor.
“We’ve played each other at least four of those (off) days, which is a heck of a game,” the coach said. “We’re competing. Again, it comes back to those guards, how they’re playing, and how they’re challenging. Aaron and Andrew (Harrison) have been better. Trey Lyles is the guy right now that I just see the confidence level, mainly because he’s doing it in games – demonstrated performance. He’s now believing more and playing harder.
“They’re hooked up to a monitor to talk about how much they exert during a game and how much they sprint. Of the big guys, he’s first every game. He sprints. You have to understand, it was only a month ago that I was on him because he wasn’t sprinting. Whatever you tell him, he listens to and he does.”
Calipari said the luxury of combining experience players with highly talented newcomers provides him with something he’s not used to: a veteran team that only cares about one thing. Winning.
“This team is further along in that than teams I’ve had here in the past,” he said. “Let’s be real. I finally have a veteran team. If for some reason this goes to two years, hopefully this is what you see every year. Half the team is veteran and the other half is young and you figure out how they play together and you have enough to compete like this. Right now we’re losing teams and coming in with new guys so it’s hard to empower those guys.”
Freshman point guard Tyler Ulis also said the team has benefited from the extended and highly competitive practice sessions.
“It’s very heated, very competitive,” Ulis said. “Everybody’s going at each other. It’s like a game against ourselves. We’re competing out there and making each other better. It’s important because we don’t want to get complacent as a team. We want to keep going out there, working hard and have something to look forward to working at.”
Calipari isn’t buying the notion that the SEC is down this year to the point that winning a championship while running the table is inevitable.
“Arkansas is ranked. You’ve got South Carolina getting votes,” Calipari said. “Georgia is getting votes. LSU is getting votes. It’s better than you think. Our RPI is, I think, two or three. South Carolina just beat Iowa State, who was a ranked team. Mississippi State, who they say is struggling, beat Florida State. The league is better than everybody gives us credit for and our teams credit for. For us right now, our focus is on us. Our focus is on how do we improve individual players?
After Tuesday’s 7 p.m. game with the Rebels (SEC Network), the Cats are back in CBS’s main national telecast Saturday at 1 p.m. at Texas A&M.
Ulis said Calipari has tried to prepare the team for the intensity it will face in conference competition, when the Cats go into every contest with a target on their backs.
“He says the games are going to be a lot tougher,” Ulis said. “They’re going to come at us more and we have to be ready for that and come ready to play.”
In a related note, Calipari said junior Alex Poythress will have surgery on his injured left knee on Tuesday.