LEXINGTON, KY. (WKYT) - Maybe it was because the first week of “Camp Cal” coincided with final exams for the fall semester. Or maybe the Wildcats still don’t understand what it is their coach is trying to coax out of them, with early-morning workouts that are heavy on the running.
The additional time spent in the Joe Kraft Center isn’t paying off. Not yet. Following Kentucky’s 88-50 win over Lipscomb, John Calipari held his thumb and finger about an inch apart to indicate how much he thought his team had improved. In five days.
The Wildcats hadn’t played since last Saturday, when they dispatched Portland, following three days of early workouts. A full five should yield bigger results, right?
Not so’s you’d notice. With 16 minutes left to play, the Wildcats led a 4-4 Lipscomb team by just 10 points.
“No disrespect to Kentucky, but at the start of the second half, they weren’t ready to play,” said Bisons coach Scott Sanderson. “I kept telling the guys, ‘They’re going to give us an opportunity.’ We didn’t take advantage of it.”
Instead, the Wildcats slowly pulled away thanks to a total of 24 Lipscomb turnovers, many of them unforced, leading to easy Kentucky baskets. In the eyes of Sanderson, that was just what this young Wildcat team needed. “They knew that,” he said. “They want that. And they got that.”
What they didn’t get was much love from their coach, who announced 8 a.m. workouts before he turned his players loose. “We'll go tomorrow morning, have breakfast. Go tomorrow afternoon, have dinner, tomorrow evening, and Monday. It's on,” Calipari said.
Thanks to Lipscomb mistakes, the Wildcats got to show off their athleticism, scoring 26 points off turnovers, many in spectacular fashion But there was little “oohing” and “aahing” from the placid Rupp Arena crowd, which didn’t have much to cheer about in the first half.
Thanks to early foul trouble, Archie Goodwin played just seven first-half minutes and got off nary a shot. That mean more clock for Jared Polson, and he made the most of his time, hitting three of four shots and scoring all seven of his points.
Ryan Harrow also picked up the slack for Goodwin, scoring eight in the first half, finishing with 12 in 31 minutes and no turnovers (just three for the season).
One stat in particular troubled him. The score sheet has him with just two assists. Harrow wasn’t happy , and he asked the media members surrounding him to let whoever tracks assists know it. “I pass the ball for a reason,” he said with a smile.
Harrow’s steady improvement is the key, it says here, to any chance the Wildcats have at improving to the point where they’ll be a factor in the Southeastern Conference, much less the NCAA.
You’d have to hope the Wildcats got back to their dorm rooms and tuned in the Indiana-Butler telecast, which turned out to be a clinic in late-game execution. It well could have been a tournament preview; the intensity of the Hoosiers and Bulldogs (who upset top-ranked IU) lifted it to that level of excitement.
These Wildcats are not playing anywhere near that level and they have a lot of work to do before they get there. Lipscomb already has played one SEC team – Mississippi, which clobbered the Bisons, 91-45.
“They’re just a physical, nasty team,” Sanderson said. And that’s something Kentucky is not. Yet.
“They guard a lot better than Kentucky does,” he said. “They force you into a lot of turnovers. They’re going to win a lot of games in the SEC. If they’re not in the top five of the SEC, I’ll be shocked. That comes with having seniors.”
Sanderson is in his 13th season at Lipscomb, a small school in Nashville. But he knows SEC basketball, having watched his father, Wimp, put together some great teams at Alabama. And he believes the Cats have it in them to be contenders, if they only listen to their coach.
“We have a sign up in our locker room: ‘Listening is a skill.’ If those guys buy in, they have a chance to be as good as they want to be,” Sanderson said. “Not resisting – that’s the key for them.”
The Wildcats don’t play until next Saturday, which is when Calipari will issue his next progress report. If the post-game news conference finds him once again sitting at the podium, holding his thumb and forefinger an inch apart, Camp Cal could be open for a long, long time.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)