LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t expect to be making excuses for his team in late February, so he’s stopped.
Now he wishes his players would too.
The 22nd-ranked Wildcats (19-8, 7-6) have been stuck in a funk for most of the last two months, looking unbeatable at home and woefully incapable of closing out opponents on the road. The latest spin on the treadmill came Wednesday, when Kentucky blew five chances to hit a game-winning shot in a 77-76 overtime loss at Arkansas.
Calipari urged his players to get angry. He certainly is.
“You’ve got to want it worse, bottom line,” Calipari said.
There hasn’t been nearly enough of that to go around for Kentucky, which hosts No. 13 Florida (22-5, 11-2) on Saturday. The Wildcats are desperately searching for momentum as they begin a season-ending stretch that includes games against No. 18 Vanderbilt and Tennessee.
While the Wildcats have stressed playing with a sense of urgency, Calipari pointed to Arkansas’ five offensive rebounds in the final 3 minutes as proof it hasn’t been hard enough.
Calipari says his team’s inexperience and lack of depth is a problem, but he isn’t ready to blame a six-man rotation consisting of three freshmen for Kentucky’s up-and-down play. Kentucky was just as young last year, but went 6-0 in games decided by five points or less. They’re 0-6 in those games this year.
“They did this last year and we won a bunch of tough, close games,” Calipari said. “This year looks like it’s kind of evening out a bit. But I like my team but there’s a little too much excuse making.”
He believes his team has a killer instinct. Finding it, however, is a problem.
“Some guys come in with it, come in with a rage and a viciousness to it where ‘If I don’t play harder than this guy I’m losing this game,’” Calipari said. “There are games we’ve done it and we’ve won. There are games we haven’t done it and they’ve won.”
The losses seem to follow a similar pattern: Kentucky falls behind early, scrambles back and then makes a key mistake in the final moments.
It happened during Florida’s 70-68 win on Feb. 5, when Kentucky let a slim lead get away in the last 3 minutes, before Brandon Knight’s game-winning 3-point attempt bounced off the rim. It happened against Arkansas, when the Wildcats missed two shots at the end of regulation and three more in overtime that could have won the game.
Knight isn’t concerned about the missed shots affecting his confidence.
“That’s the good thing about great players,” he said. “If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it.”
The clutch shots have been falling for the Gators, who are 6-3 in tight games this year. Calipari doesn’t consider Florida lucky.
“I don’t want to say that because we’ve been poor in close games and I don’t think it’s been luck,” Calipari said. “You create opportunities and what they do is they create opportunities for themselves.”
The Wildcats do not.
Calipari benched freshman guard Doron Lamb against Arkansas for most of the second half and all of overtime for what he considered a lack of effort. Calipari said he showed the tape to Lamb on Thursday, pointing out instances where Lamb stood around and watched.
Calipari said Lamb isn’t the only one, but since he refuses to go outside his top six players in close games, the players aren’t worried about benched if they don’t perform.
Calipari is left trying to find the right words to keep his players motivated.
“You’re begging, you’re cajoling, you’re grabbing, you’re kissing, you’re punching, you’re doing whatever you can,” Calipari said. “Compete, just compete.”
If the Wildcats don’t compete on Saturday, Kentucky will have as many losses this season (nine) as Calipari’s previous three teams combined.
Kentucky is 31-0 at home under Calipari, but the Gators will hardly be intimidated. They ended Xavier’s 30-game home winning streak on New Year’s Eve and are 5-1 on the road in the SEC.
If the game is close late on Saturday, the Wildcats say they can’t over think the situation — that hasn’t helped.
“We haven’t been winning worrying about it,” Knight said. “Might as well try something different.”