LEXINGTON, Ky. — The teacher in John Calipari understands that it takes time for young players to break out of bad habits.
However, the perfectionist in Kentucky’s coach is growing a little impatient with his 13th-ranked Wildcats (13-3, 1-1). They were outworked in a loss to Georgia last weekend and lackadaisical at times in a victory over outmanned Auburn on Tuesday.
“I told them, I haven’t enjoyed the last two games,” Calipari said.
He’s hoping the good times return against LSU (10-7, 2-0) Saturday, when his instructions to the Wildcats will be simple.
“Just play better, (have) more consistent effort,” Calipari said. “Come out with a sense of urgency, (don’t be) content with how they’re playing. We had a lot of guys content with how they’re playing and that just sets you up for more failure.”
Shaking his players out of it could be difficult. Though he’s hinted at lineup changes, Calipari has been reluctant to stray beyond his six-man rotation because there are still trust issues with reserves such as Eloy Vargas, Stacey Poole and Jon Hood.
Calipari would like to play them more often to take some of the pressure off freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. Problem is, the subs aren’t giving him confidence.
While Vargas drew a rousing ovation from the Rupp Arena crowd and enthusiastic applause when he took away a rebound from a pair of Auburn players, Calipari criticized Vargas for falling back on bad habits when he’s on offense.
The coaches have been stressing to Vargas the importance of keeping the ball high when he receives it in the post. Instead, Vargas takes a step after catching it, giving opponents time to recover and contest his shot.
“He can’t get a shot at the basket right now because every time he catches it it’ll be a step back,” Calipari said. “We’re working on it.”
The coach is convinced Kentucky eventually will need one of its role players to make a major contribution. But he remains adamant that they’ll have to earn their playing time.
“We only have six guys right now,” Hood admitted. “When you got into tournament play, you have to have depth. We don’t have the 13 guys that some of the other teams have.”
Help isn’t on the way, at least not this year. The NCAA’s decision to rule freshman center Enes Kanter permanently ineligible for accepting above the necessary benefits while playing for a Turkish club team two years ago has made him the most talented undergraduate assistant in the country.
Calipari is frustrated that his role players try to do too much during their limited playing time. Rather than try to score, he’d prefer they rebound and play defense.
It’s what kept Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris on the floor last year while playing with more talented teammates. It’s not happening this season.
“There’s just that drop and we’ve got to close that gap between those six (regulars) and those three other guys,” Calipari said.
That’s not to say the regulars have been perfect. Forward Darius Miller acknowledges the Wildcats only played well at times against the Tigers.
“We didn’t really play a full 40 minutes,” Miller said.
Maybe not, but the Wildcats were still more than good enough to handle the Tigers. Jones, coming off the bench for the first time, scored a school freshman-record 35 points, including 22 in the second half as Kentucky rolled 78-54.
Calipari said there’s a chance Jones could begin Saturday’s game on the sideline, despite his dynamic scoring, in favor of Lamb, whom Calipari praised and started in place of Jones.
Lamb thought it was “weird” to hear his name be introduced with the starters, but seemed to embrace the role. An admitted gunner when playing the role of sixth man, he focused on setting up his teammates as a starter. He finished with a career-high seven assists, several of them to Jones.
“It was kind of cool, but a little different,” Lamb said. “If (starting) is what they want me to do, I’ll do it.”
While not necessarily a permanent fix, Calipari was pleased with the way his sometimes slow-starting team responded to Lamb’s presence on the floor at the opening tip.
“There was an energy level to what we were trying to do,” he said. “So if that’s the lineup that gives us a good start, then we start that way.”