ATLANTA — The Kentucky Wildcats no longer have any game tape from the 2013-14 regular season. John Calipari shredded it all.
In a motivational and symbolic attempt to put his team’s nine-loss season in the past, the national championship-winning coach called the youngest team in the country into its practice facility on Monday and turned its attention to a shredder in the middle of a meeting room. There was a stack of DVDs there, too. The DVDs featured every regular-season game the Wildcats had played, all 31. Every player was handed two or three games. There was only one thing left to do.
"We got the DVDs and just shredded them," guard Aaron Harrison said.
They shredded the losses. They shredded the wins. It took about five minutes; 1,240 minutes of footage left in the past with the rearview mirror torn off.
"It’s a new beginning for us," center Willie Cauley-Stein said.
That new beginning looked the way the team’s initial beginning was supposed to: the Wildcats stormed into Atlanta’s Georgia Dome and ran away from the NCAA hopeful LSU Tigers, running an 85-67 final score behind star freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. Kentucky has new life this postseason, and if there’s anything worse than giving 37 McDonald’s All-Americans (give or take) new life, it’s giving new life to a team of 37 McDonald’s All-Americans that now have no concept of losing. That concept was shredded. Kentucky is 1-0, undefeated, as advertised.
""It was a surprise to me. We were all looking at each other like, ‘What are we doing?’ Then (Calipari) said we’re shredding all of our DVDs, and I thought it was a really funny concept," forward Alex Poythress said of the record-shredding experience. "It worked. I felt like we wiped the slate clean."
Added Aaron Harrison: "Coach just told us a lot about how the games before this didn’t really matter. The record doesn’t matter. None of that matters. Just that you go out and play. I think that really helped, that whole exercise we did as a team, just helped our whole mental state and we really just came out as a different team. … It was a good feeling. (Coach Cal) still has faith in us. We still have faith in each other."
Hollywood-esque or not, the tactic worked, at least for one night. After a hot-shooting start for LSU, Kentucky finished off the final 25 or so minutes looking like a top-10 team — perhaps even the top-three team they were projected to be in the preseason. Calipari, the owner of 548 official NCAA wins and the 2012 national title, is not an easy coach to please. But when his motivational tactics and in-game adjustments work like that (by absolutely blowing out a desperate team talented enough to challenge for the SEC tourney title), it’s not difficult to envision the team’s 22-9 record having hardly any bearing on its postseason prospects.
"It’s been a tough road, and I think they have had a fabulous year. I really do. Yeah, there were two losses, maybe three that I thought we should have gotten. One non-conference, a couple conference wins, should have won those games. We didn’t. So OK," Calipari said. "Difference between three games and where we are? Come on. I think this team has done well. Now let’s see if we can continue on this path and really make some people mad."
That started on Friday.
LSU needed this game in the worst way to keep its NCAA Tournament dreams alive. Those are now dead. Kentucky, already a lock to see its name scroll across the screen on Selection Sunday, came to Atlanta with different needs: positive momentum, a more manageable tourney seed and the program’s first quality win since Feb. 22 (also against LSU) just to name a few. The young Wildcats closed the season in unspectacular fashion, losing four of their final seven games, including two humbling games against No. 1 Florida and lackluster losses to Arkansas and conference bottom-feeder South Carolina.
All told, Kentucky traveled to Atlanta claiming just one regulation time win (Missouri) against a top-75 team in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings since the start of February.
A one-and-done showing in the SEC Tournament, even against a very athletic LSU team that has had its number this season, would have left Kentucky searching for answers entering the 68-team field, not to mention leave it with likely a 7- or 8-seed. But those days look to be over. This is not a 7- or 8-seed. That team was deleted on Monday.
Despite what their nine losses reveal about their up-and-down nature, the Wildcats are still a team that a grand total of zero opponents want to see in their NCAA region. The inexperience is there; the inefficiencies exist. But back-to-back No. 1 recruiting classes rarely tell complete lies.
This is a scary bunch when things are clicking.
For one, the Wildcats are big, one of the biggest teams in the country in fact, running out a starting lineup measuring out 6-foot-6 or taller across the board against LSU. They brought two former top recruits — 6-foot-8 Alex Poythress and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein — off the bench on Friday. Shooting over skyscrapers every minute of the game is not an easy task. The Wildcats can devastate opponents on the offensive glass (first nationally) and run up an impressive free throw rate practically every night. It’s an effective wear-you-down strategy, especially with McDonald’s All-American skill coursing through that size, though it’s not fullproof: nine opponents figured it out.
Kentucky’s bad habits and tendencies — allowing opponents to hit the offensive glass; not forcing too many turnovers in spite of its length; so-so shooting numbers — were not entirely shredded. But when a collection of NBA talent plays with that type of focus and intensity … best of luck to all but the very best teams around.
"We’re lengthy, so our length is obviously going to bother people in the post, but it helps when our guards are big, too. So they can come and stunt and dig and trap, too. So then it helps us out a lot," Cauley-Stein said. "So if we played another team that they have a really good big man, our guards really help us a lot. So we should be alright."
Given the teams’ two previous meetings — decided by just six points — and their relatively close proximity in nearly every ranking system, the Wildcats had no business running up an insurmountable lead fairly early on in the second half. Things were just different this time around. Sometimes talent just takes over and all anyone can do is watch. If you haven’t seen it happen, just ask LSU what it looks like. The Tigers got a front-row seat to a second-half show featuring a team of future NBA picks apparently piecing things together at just the right time. But will it be enough to make an extended NCAA run? Will it even be enough to take home the SEC tourney title?
With all respect to the rest of the SEC field, Florida and Kentucky appear to be on a championship collision course. They are the top two seeds, but for a league that is serious danger of three (or fewer) teams making the field of 68, the gap is tremendous when both teams are peaking. The Gators beat a good Missouri team by 23 points in its conference tourney opener. A few hours later, there was that revived Kentucky performance.
The previous matchup between the SEC’s preeminent programs ended in similar fashion, though. The Gatord welcomed the Wildcats to the O-Dome with a 19-point rout in the regular season finale. But that wasn’t against this Kentucky team. That game, and that team, is in the bottom of a paper shredder back in Lexington. It doesn’t exist. Or so they claim.
"Where we’re at now, (the record) doesn’t really matter," Cauley-Stein said. "You can’t go back and fix everything. You can’t go back and change anything that we did. So this is really a new season."