John Calipari’s cartoonish sideline antics during the first half Tuesday night were telling.
He screamed, put his hands on his head and slapped the floor in frustration, but for all his gyrations, his top-ranked Kentucky team never led and trailed reeling Mississippi State by 13 at halftime.
And while the youthful Wildcats rallied in the second half behind sophomore forward Terrence Jones’ awakening and Darius Miller’s clutch 3-point shooting for a gritty 73-64 victory, the damage already had been done. They looked vulnerable for the first time since their lone loss at Indiana two months ago, a game in which they trailed by 10, their previous largest deficit this season.
“At halftime I was a little mean,” said Calipari, whose team is 27-1. “Like I tell these guys if it takes me being mean to you for you to play, come on man. Why should I have to do that?”
Yet for the favorite to win the national championship, Kentucky on Tuesday night looked a shadow of the super team many thought it was becoming. Instead, it actually looked like a classic Calipari team.
The type that has more talent than anybody else in the country, but somehow fails to play to its sky-high potential. A team like the one Calipari had during the 2009-10 season, his first at Kentucky, which featured a record five NBA first-round draft selections, including the No. 1 pick in point guard John Wall, but lost in the NCAA tournament’s regional finals.
This Kentucky squad isn’t as talented as that one, but has the same type of ingredients with sensational freshman forward Anthony Davis, a lock to be the first pick of June’s NBA draft, along with three other potential first-round selections in freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, freshman point guard Marquis Teague and Jones. It also showed Tuesday night that it’s capable of the same lapses that cost Calipari’s teams dearly in the past.
On this night Kentucky escaped, but Calipari clearly could not draw up any schemes to overcome his team’s tentative offense, lackluster defense and zombie-like demeanor in the first half. He credited his team’s second-half comeback simply to its “will to win.”
“This was a terrific win,” Calipari said.
But Calipari knows he was rather fortunate against a Mississippi State team that scored only four points in the final 6-1/2 minutes and is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament after losing four straight games. His team had been feasting on the waifish-weak Southeastern Conference and entered Tuesday with just the nation’s 47th-best strength of schedule.
So there’s still plenty of reason to doubt Kentucky, just like there always is with Calipari’s teams.
Because the knock on Calipari will remain the same until he finally wins his first NCAA championship: He can collect all the talent he wants, but inevitably underachieves with it because of his coaching shortcomings.
Case in point: Don’t forget Calipari’s Memphis team blew a nine-point lead in the final two minutes of regulation against Kansas in the 2008 national championship game and lost in overtime, even with a future NBA Most Valuable Player in point guard Derrick Rose. But every season is seemingly the one that will be different for Calipari.
At least that’s what his players always say. When asked about those who question Calipari’s coaching, Miller rattled off the same type of answer his players have for years.
“I don’t think that’s smart at all,” said Miller, a senior guard. “All the teams that he’s had, all the games that he’s won and the tournaments that he’s been in, I don’t see how you could question his coaching ability.”
Miller, a member of that uber-talented Kentucky team that disappointed two years ago, actually believes this team is “just as good, if not better.”
“We’re confident in our abilities,” he said. “We never feel like we’re going to lose. Our team chemistry is one of the best teams I’ve been on.”
But for all the national championship hype surrounding Kentucky, Miller said he and his teammates haven’t discussed it. Not that you can blame them.
After all, they should know better when it comes to Calipari-coached teams.