John Calipari is trying a different tack to get through to his young Cats:
Simulating middle school gym class.
The iconic Kentucky head basketball coach organized a staff versus players dodgeball game at the end of his team’s walkthrough practice on the eve of Wednesday’s rematch with Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena. The goal of the gimmick — to lighten a locker room mood that’s been dampened by recent on-court struggles and compounded by the backbreaking loss of Nerlens Noel for the rest of the season.
It worked. At least for one night.
Willie Cauley-Stein scored a career-high 20 points — by far the best individual performance by a Wildcat since Noel went down with an ACL tear in his left knee — and the defending champs turned the ball over just seven times, the team’s lowest single-game giveaway mark in SEC play, en route to a four-point win over lowly Vanderbilt. Impressive or not, Wednesday’s performance showcased a newfound poise in Lexington unnoticeable at any point earlier this season.
The 2012-13 campaign has been an uptight four months for Calipari’s squad. Saddled with sky-high preseason expectations and a tantalizing top-three ranking to start the season, Kentucky’s season has spiraled downhill ever since, landing in a bubble conversation normally exclusive of teams with so many blue-chip recruits.
If Tuesday’s dodgeball game served any function at all, it was to reel back in a band of young kids pressing and trying to do too much. Kentucky, which has been dodging quality wins left and right, will need this renewed focus and more relaxed mentality to endure if it has any hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive time under Coach Cal. The Wildcats are firmly on the bubble, lacking a single noteworthy win and needing to prove itself again in the absence of Noel.
Keeping up with the throwback gym class theme, Calipari plans to set up a wiffle ball game on Friday night in preparation of Saturday’s home showdown with surging Missouri.
Until these Cats stop playing like kids, their head coach has no other choice but to treat them as such.