LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky coach John Calipari never hesitates to bring out the whistle during practice when he sees something he doesn’t like.
That philosophy changes, however, when the 14th-ranked Wildcats scrimmage. Then the whistle seems to disappear.
“He doesn’t care how you get the ball,” said senior center Josh Harrellson. “There’s no fouls, you can run people over so it’s definitely getting us in the right mindset to play.”
It’s a mindset Kentucky (15-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) lacked during a 77-70 loss at Georgia (14-5, 3-3) three weeks ago, a game in which Calipari says his team was “mushed.”
The rematch with the Bulldogs is Saturday. Calipari thinks he’s seen progress in the interim, but he won’t know for sure until the ball goes in the air.
“It’ll be a test,” Calipari said. “Have we gotten better? Have we gotten tougher? Can we play through bumps? Can we physically score in the post when they’re letting us shoot it? Can we make a basket from two feet?”
Even that proved to be a challenge during the first meeting. The Bulldogs bullied the young Wildcats all over the floor, closing quickly whenever Kentucky attacked the lane. Rather than finish, Calipari said his players became tentative, shying away from contact or hoping to get bailed out by a referee’s whistle.
It led to an disheartening defeat, the first time the Wildcats have been truly manhandled by a conference opponent during Calipari’s two-year tenure.
Forward Darius Miller in particular drew the wrath of his coach after going just 2-of-11 from the floor, most of the misses coming from in close when Miller opted to fade away when a defender charged him rather than try to get to the rim.
Miller has responded by playing some of the best basketball of his career, scoring double figures in four straight games including a season-high 18 against South Carolina last weekend. While Miller won’t say the tongue-lashing from his coach is the key to his turnaround, he allows he’s playing at a higher level.
“I did have a pretty bad game” against Georgia, Miller said. “In my opinion we’ve all gotten better throughout the year.”
The Wildcats would like to think they’ve gotten tougher. They were dominant for long stretches while beating the Gamecocks on the road last Saturday, though South Carolina won’t pose the same challenges brought on by Georgia and star forward Trey Thompkins.
Thompkins lit the Wildcats up for 25 points and seven rebounds on Jan. 8 and his teammates seemed to feed off his aggression. Georgia didn’t back down from Kentucky and isn’t likely to do it on Saturday as it tries to end the nation’s second-longest home winning streak at 28 games.
“We kind of let (Thompkins) do whatever he wanted to,” Miller said. “He got all the shots he wanted to have. We’ve got to try and disrupt his game a little bit.”
It’s one of the reasons why practice has been a little more physical than usual over the last couple weeks. Yet for all of Calipari’s whistle-swallowing during scrimmages there’s only so far he can push.
Kentucky is only six players deep. And without depth, allowing things to get out of hand during practice and the season can take a disastrous turn.
So as much as he prods he also has to cajole. Calipari isn’t sure whether he has done enough.
“After the game we’ll say ‘boy we got better’ or ‘we’re the same guys,”’ Calipari said. “It will be one of the two.”
He’s hoping for the former, if only because it will make dinner on Saturday night more enjoyable.
Longtime friend and mentor Larry Brown has spent the last few days with Calipari watching the Wildcats practice. Kentucky practiced so poorly on Thursday Calipari asked Brown not to bring it up at dinner until just before dessert arrived.
Calipari, laughing, said he hold him “‘We can ruin dessert … you can talk to me about this practice.”’
The 70-year-old Brown, who stepped down as head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats last month, hasn’t just stood idly by either. Harrellson said he’s stopped players in the middle of a drill to get their attention and correct mistakes.
“It’s great advice,” Harrellson said. “He said just go for every rebound and do what it takes to get it.”