Coach John Calipari loves teaching his players how to play and respect the game. He really enjoys his role.
Instead of Coach Cal, we perhaps should start calling him Professor Cal.
And he probably couldn’t resist an opportunity to teach the media folks a thing or two like he did after 13th-ranked Kentucky’s 71-62 comeback win over Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena Wednesday night.
Speaking like a college professor, Calipari asked the news media guys a simple question: What did they learn about this year’s Wildcats, who had played poorly in the opening half and trailed by 10 points early in the second half against the Commodores?
“What did you learn about my team when you watched this game?” asked Calipari during his postgame press conference. “Oh, this is great when I ask you guys questions because you really don't know the game, so I'm going to ask you again. What did you learn about my team? You need Nick (Richards).”
After a very ugly first half which saw 6-11 Richards play only five minutes due to two early fouls, Kentucky – a 21-point favorite – managed to overcome last-place Vanderbilt with the help of Richards, who notched his ninth double-double of the season – 15 points and 11 rebounds (all of them in the second half except for one rebound).
Calipari said Richards can’t get “in foul trouble on dumb fouls,” telling the junior from Kingston, Jamaica that the Cats really need him on the hardwood floor.
Moments later, Richards, surrounded by many reporters, was told about Coach Cal’s comments. He was surprised.
“Really? I think he’s over exaggerating,” said Richards, who had posted only one double-double in 74 games before the current season. “I think we have a lot of good pieces on our team.”
Nevertheless, it wasn’t a very pretty victory, but UK improved its overall mark to 16-4 overall (6-1 in SEC), winning eight of its last nine games. Vandy, coached by former North Carolina All-American Jerry Stackhouse, dropped to 8-12 (0-7 in SEC).
In addition to Richards, UK’s three super guards – Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey – were outstanding with passing, free throw shooting (with a combined 14 of 16 from the line) and double-figure scoring.
Asked about his team’s second-half comeback, Maxey said, “Just our competitive spirit and then Nick (Richards), honestly. He had two fouls early, and then to have him on the court always helps. And to just go out there be competitive defensively and get multiple stops in a row.”
On Kentucky’s horrible first-half performance, the Cats’ Pause founder Oscar Combs tweeted, “That’s one of worst Rupp Arena 20-minute halves that I can ever remember. ….”
EJ Montgomery – a 6-11 sophomore who also had a productive night with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting along with two critical offensive rebound baskets in the second half – admitted the team was emotionally flat against the hapless Vanderbilt squad. He said the difference between the halves “was just energy. We came out flat, and the second half we just go out ourselves together and came out stronger.”
Montgomery added Coach Cal, who is a big fan of empowerment, has begun to let the Wildcats figure themselves out on their own when playing.
“We’ve just been talking about being player-driven,” he said. “We have to just go out and figure it out ourselves.”
Like Calipari has done many times before, the coach also praised Hagans’ play-making ability.
“We could say there are better point guards in the country, but you got to tell me who you’re talking about,” said Coach Cal.
And the UK boss is “trying to promote him as the best point guard in the country because I really believe it.”
Calipari added Hagans plays really hard but wishes the 6-3 sophomore guard from Cartersville, Georgia, would be more careful with his ball-handling. “He just gets sloppy,” said Coach Cal. “… He had four at halftime.”
* * *
Unlike Vanderbilt, Kentucky will be facing a dangerous Auburn team on the road Saturday evening.
It isn’t going to be an easy task for UK and it’s a Top 20 matchup with the Tigers rated No. 17. In addition, ESPN’s College GameDay will be at Auburn Arena for the first time ever and the campus will be rocking like crazy.
Kentucky and Auburn, along with No. 22 LSU, are the only SEC teams ranked in this week’s Associated Press poll.
In the series between both schools, the Wildcats have split the last six meetings, but have dropped two of the last three at Auburn.
And the last time UK played Auburn, it was a heartbreaker in Kansas City.
As you’ll recall, Coach Bruce Pearl’s Tigers knocked UK out of the Big Dance last March, defeating the Wildcats 77-71 in overtime in an Elite Eight showdown.
Even though All-SEC stars Jared Harper and Bryce Brown -- who hit 26 and 24 points, respectively, against the Cats, helping Auburn to reach its first-ever Final Four – are no longer around, the Tigers are a serious threat.
They still have five players – all seniors -- who played significant minutes in that Elite Eight matchup, ranging from 33 to 12 minutes. And four of them are currently starters.
So, Pearl’s team has experience, including 6-11, 260-pound senior Austin Wiley, who was selected as a preseason All-SEC (second team) choice by the coaches. Wiley is also SEC’s second-leading rebounder with an average of 9.2 rebounds, just behind Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry, who has 10 rebounds.
Kerry Blackshear of Florida and Nick Richards of Kentucky follow as the league’s third and fourth-best rebounder with 8.4 and 8.3 caroms, respectively.
It will be fun to watch how Wiley and Richards battle on the boards. Richards leads the Cats in scoring (14.4 points) and rebounding (8.3). Both players are currently projected as mid-second round picks in 2020 NBA Draft, but I look for Richards’ draft stock to rise soon.
And don’t forget Auburn’s freshman sensation Isaac Okoro, a five-star recruit from Powder Springs, Georgia. Okoro, who is the team’s second-leading scorer, has started every game for the Tigers and is projected as a mid-first round pick in the NBA Draft.
Speaking of Wiley, his parents are Aubrey Wiley and Vickie Orr. Recognize their names?
They both played standout basketball at Auburn many years ago. Aubrey once led the SEC in rebounding with 9.3 boards per game during the early 1990s. Vickie was an All-American and a member of USA team in the 1992 Olympics.
UK’s Ashton Hagans, who leads the SEC in assists and steals, said the contest at Auburn in a hostile environment will be a rough one.
"It's going to be a big one,” said Hagans. “Tough environment, but we've been in that environment. We've been (to) Arkansas, Texas Tech, but now we're going into Auburn, a real physical team on Saturday.”
Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley, by the way, also tops the league in free throw shooting with 91.5 percent. His teammates, Tyrese Maxey and Hagans, follow at No. 8 (82.1 percent) and No. 9 (81.2 percent), respectively, in the SEC.
Auburn -- now 18-2 overall (5-2 SEC) – is coming off a double overtime win at Ole Miss Tuesday night when it rallied from a 19-point deficit in early second half to come up with an 83-82 victory.
My prediction? Kentucky by four.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four (soon-to-be five) books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine, and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.