by Dick Gabriel
ATLANTA -- John Calipari will tell us exactly what the "tweak" is - but it'll cost us.
"I'll do it in a book," he told the media after UK's win over Georgia, "where you have to buy it." Reporters laughed. We're pretty sure he was kidding.
He was in a pretty good mood, and who could blame him? The UK coach had left himself wide open to ridicule by touting a dramatic, double-secret, foolproof change which had been tested through the years by some of his other teams. He had all but guaranteed an improved level of play by his Wildcats in the Georgia Dome.
The move, whatever it was, paid off against LSU. On Saturday, in a 70-58 win over Georgia, the Wildcats walked the walk again, coming through for the man who had talked the talk.
The suspicion here is that what the Cats changed, in addition to their defensive physicality, was a willingness to more freely share the basketball. You can almost see them rise for a shot, only to fight the urge and think about a teammate.
Evidence is a peek at the assist/turnover ratio which, for the second straight day, was a positive number. The Wildcats produced 12 dimes to just 10 turns, one of the reasons Kentucky has played its way into the title game and a rematch with Florida.
Nine of those assists belonged to Andrew Harrison, a career high for the UK point guard who seems to be making a point of looking for someone before or even after he crashes the lane. His teammates apparently are doing the same, which is why the Cats' ball movement has been consistently better in the past two days than it's been since November.
"I think the weight of the world (has been) on these guys," Calipari said of the twins, who combined for 34 points and 11 assists against the Bulldogs, hitting six-of-nine from beyond the arc. "All the stuff they're trying to deal with, all the high expectations and all of a sudden, they stink.
"These players don't stink. 'Oh, they're no good, they're overrated.' They're 18 years old."
The Harrisons and their freshman teammates are playing in their first (and possibly only) SEC tournament. Heck, Saturday was the first time Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein have played in the tourney semi-finals.
But even the most disillusioned fan would have to admit, the Wildcats are playing a different brand of basketball at just the right time, starting with the point guard.
"Just my teammates," Andrew said when pressed for an explanation. "They make me look good right now. They're knocking down their shots."
Brother Aaron did just that, nailing 7-of-10 from the floor. "My brother got me some great looks and Julius got me some looks, so I just tried to do what I could today for my team, which is knock down shots," he said.
Coming into the tournament, Kentucky's offense was as much fun to watch as a chain gang chopping weeds, only minus the rhythm. Atlanta, or the "tweak," or both have made a difference.
"I think their team has continued to improve," said Georgia coach Mark Fox. "One of the things we banked on today is that they wouldn't shoot the three well and they made shots. They made three-point shots today, and that's the difference in the game."
They'll need to make shots Sunday against Florida. The Wildcats hit just 34.8 percent in the first half down in Gainesville, when they fell into that huge crevasse. They nearly climbed out but in the end, just couldn't fend off the rampaging Gators, who had to work hard Saturday to dispatch Tennessee in the other semi-final.
This is not the same Kentucky team, according to Calipari, not the Wildcats who lost at home to Arkansas or on the road at lowly South Carolina.
"You've seen us," he said. "We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago. It took some stuff and making us more physical in practice, because the games are becoming slugfests again.
"This team just needed something to get them over the hump and they're doing it now."
It certainly has buoyed the Cats' confidence. Cauley-Stein said he wanted another shot at top-ranked Florida. So did Randle. "I was hoping they won today," he said. "I wanted to play them again."
Their coach? Not so much. "I've had enough of Florida," he said. "My players can say all they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again. "
But "Kentweaky" has made the championship game, which will be one more chance to see just how much this team has improved. It definitely has made a case for itself over the past 48 hours in the Georgia Dome.