From Tom Leach, the voice of the Wildcats…
How about some props for the head coach in Kentucky’s 73-66 win over Louisville?
Players win games but it’s the coach’s job to put them in the best position to succeed, both strategically and mentally, and I think John Calipari did some of his best work both within the game and leading up to it.
On the court, Calipari had to dramatically alter his gameplan after losing a player who scored 17 points in the first half. And since Julius Randle’s cramping issue didn’t surface until early in the second half, Calipari did not have the luxury of making those adjustments during a halftime break. And Cal kept his team focused on how to win the game without the big man in the middle.
Andrew Harrison told reporters after the game that “coach didn’t really talk about it (Randle). He just coached the game.” And so his players just played the game to win it, rather than worry about the impact of losing it.
Louisville made six of its first 11 second-half shots to wipe out a seven-point UK lead. But Kentucky played its best defense of the season, forcing the Cardinals to miss 14 of their final 17 shots. In the kenpom.com metric of efficiency, holding an opponent under one point-per-possession is a job well done. For the first time in a matchup with a ranked opponent this season, the Wildcats hit that mark, limiting UofL to 0.94 points-per-possession (and Louisville was the nation’s top-ranked team in offensive efficiency going into this game).
Kentucky had given up 80 or more points in back-to-back games and since Calipari’s second season at UMass in 1990, he’s only had one team give up 80-plus in THREE consecutive games. John Calipari’s best teams have been able to get stops down the stretch of close games and this UK team finally showed an ability to do that in a big game. That’s a very important breakthrough.
Now, let’s look at how Calipari helped his team win this game before it was played.
Despite the high stakes and the looming BBN panic over a potential fourth straight loss to a ranked foe, Calipari did not break routine. He gave his players time off for Christmas as he always has done. During shootaround Saturday morning, after a session of working against Louisville’s full court press schemes, Calipari told his players they couldn’t be more prepared to attack it if they had two more weeks of practice. (And against a team ranked second in the nation in the percentage of possessions on which it forces a turnover, UK gave the ball away only 11 times, two fewer than Louisville).
If Kentucky makes it to the national title game, it will be the second-youngest team ever to do that and yet Calipari has put them through a schedule ranked the 18th-toughst in the nation (compared to Louisville’s, which was ranked 150th coming into o this matchup). Kentucky was younger, yes, but it was battle-tested, which helped negate any advantage the Cards had with their experience.
The Cats aren’t “there” yet. Calipari often talked about “demonstrated performance” and UK must still show this kind of mental toughness away from Rupp Arena. But this was a very good win over a good team and let’s see how they build from it.
–listen to Tom each weekday morning at 9:06am eastern on “The Leach Report” radio network