Calipari eager to see how Wildcats respond in return to the big stage

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By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — John Calipari is anxious to see how far his team has progressed when Kentucky steps on the big stage against No. 9 North Carolina Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.

“I’m excited about every game we play because it gives us a chance to see where we are,” he said Thursday. “We’re going through practice with one thought — let’s get better today. And then let’s see where we are. Everything is experience with this team. You can’t learn about your team against Popcorn State.”

In its last appearance against a ranked opponent, Kentucky (8-2) dropped a 118-84 loss to No. 2 Duke. The loss to the Blue Devils gave the Wildcats a wake-up call, while an 84-83 overcome setback to Seton Hall two weeks ago also served notice to Calipari and his squad.

“The Seton Hall game probably showed me more than anything else (that) we need to spend more time (working on late-game situations) because we’re going to be in close games and they need to know how to finish a game,” he said. “But, at the end, this team has to be empowered. It’s got to be a player-driven team, not a coach-driven team. And that’s every day. I’m trying to work on it every day to get them to take on more, to talk more, to talk to each other, to huddle more, to make it that. But that happens over a period of time.”

Much like the Wildcats, the Tar Heels (8-2) have endured somewhat of a roller-coaster ride this season. North Carolina lost close encounters to Texas and Michigan but received a breakthrough following a 103-90 win over Gonzaga last weekend. Calipari said the Tar Heels will “come at you a lot of different ways.”

“They’re going to score points (and) we’re going to score points too,” the Kentucky coach said. “The games we’ve played against these guys in most cases it’s been two teams going right at each other. That’s how you’re going to have to play. Some of the shots they take are tough shots, but they make them. You can’t have that phase you. Texas was down I believe 17-5. You just keep playing … Gonzaga had them down and then they came back and won. I mean, they’re a team that’s going to score. You just try to make it difficult on them. The biggest thing is you have to rebound. We’ve been a good rebounding team until the last game. We’re going to have to rebound. They’re good. They’re a good team.”

North Carolina is 3-1 in the CBS Sports Classic but dropped a 103-100 loss to the Wildcats in the four-team event two years ago. Malik Monk scored a freshman-record 47 points in the three-point victory. North Carolina returned the favor later that season with a 75-73 victory in the NCAA South Region finals that sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four, a run that concluded with a national championship, the third in coach Roy Williams’ 16-year tenure at the school. Kentucky has won five of the past eight meetings between the two powerhouse programs.

Calipari expects the same kind of contest this time around.

“They play fast — they get it up the court in a hurry,” he said. “They look for quick post-ups. They through their point guard a lot. That player is a vital position for them. He does a great job every year.”

As for the Wildcats, Calipari said his squad hasn’t reached its peak.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we’re getting better, but until they are empowered they’re not going to be what we’re all looking for them to be. I’m telling you, we’re still – yesterday was a coach-driven practice. It can’t. At some point it has to be player driven,” he said. “We’re trying some things, we’re doing some things, we’re moving some people around. There’s stuff I like that we’re doing. It’s just different here because there’s no like here’s how we’re going to play.

“There are basics of like defensively and offensively, but exactly what we’re going to run and how we’re going to defend pick-and-rolls. It changes year to year because our team changes. That’s why it takes time. That’s why we rely on the process as you’re trying to get through. You’re trying to win as many games as you can, but it becomes a process.”

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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