Stephens: 'Cats fine-tuning before season heats up

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By Brad Stephens

LEXINGTON – It's not even Thanksgiving and John Calipari's University of Kentucky basketball team is miles ahead of where most coaches could hope their teams will be at the end of a year.

The Wildcats notched a solid-but-not perfect win over Texas-Arlington, 105-76, Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.

They were out-rebounded 21-17 in the first half, weren't talking enough on defense and weren't executing well in half-court for much of the night.

Yet by the time the game ended, UK (4-1) had reached triple digits in points and roared back to win the rebounding battle by 12, at 46-34. The 'Cats also boasted an 18-8 assist-to-turnover ratio, blocked eight shots and notched seven steals.

The outcome was never in doubt, yet Calipari and UK players weren't satisfied with the performance.

“I was kind of disappointed,” said sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who tallied 14 points and 10 rebounds. “The first half was ugly. The second half was a lot better, but still disappointing.”

Calipari let his frustrations be known throughout the game. During different times in the first half he brought over star freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and, once at the same time, both Aaron and Andrew Harrison for some individual coaching.

With Randle, Calipari's issue was needing to run plays specifically for Randle to get him involved in the game, rather than him being ready from the opening tip. He went on to post his fifth straight double-double, with 22 points and 10 rebounds.

Calipari questioned a couple of ill-advised 3-pointers Young took during the night, saying he shot from the perimeter on some plays where he was supposed to work inside and post up. Young finished with a team-high 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting.

And the Harrison's drew much of Calipari's first half attention, for issues ranging from negative body language to not talking on defense to not sprinting the floor. Aaron Harrison struggled to five points on 2-of-11 shooting, but Andrew played one of his better games so far, scoring 15 points and dishing out six assists.

Randle, Young and the Harrison's can all dominate a game against sub-par opponents, even when they're not doing the little things like talking on defense or making the extra pass.

But for a team that started the year No. 1, no one's going to remember what the 'Cats did against the UT-Arlington's of the world. This season will be defined by a handful of games, most of which will be played in March.

The little things Calipari's preaching right now aren't just to prepare his team to beat the overmatched squads UK is playing right now. Those lessons are being ingrained so they'll pay off on dates like Dec. 28 against Louisville, Jan. 18 vs. Tennessee or March 8 at Florida.

“He's just trying to help you,” Andrew Harrison said of Calipari's constant teaching. “If he's saying it, he's not just saying it to say it. It's true, and you're going to see it on film the next day, so you better not argue with him.”

The 'Cats will go to work throughout the rest of the week leading up to the next game, a Monday night date against Cleveland State (7 p.m., FSN).

With tonight's shortcomings fresh on its mind, UK probably won't be losing any first half rebounding battles or forgetting to talk defensively come Monday.

But Calipari will find another area where the 'Cats need work and he'll emphasize that as much as he'll emphasize talking defensively this week.

“You know, right now I'm coaching too hard, but I've got no choice,” Calipari said. “I can let them do the things they want to do and win a game and think it's OK, or correct them, and make them do the right thing.”

With tougher non-conference games and the SEC season on the horizon, now's the time for Calipari to fine-tune his basketball team.

Expect him to keep doing plenty of it over the coming weeks.