LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach John Calipari said Wednesday that there are “30, 40 teams that could get to the Final Four” based on what he has seen and heard.
“And I don’t think there’s any clear-cut national champion winner,” Calipari said. “If you talk about Louisville, they’ve got to be right there as one of those if you’re talking four or five. Possibly a Duke. I like Michigan. They’re doing it shooting.
“(That)¿scares me sometimes, because sometimes you go on a run, you’ll go a month and can’t make a shot. And if that’s what you’re relying on, your team goes south. But I think Michigan right now may be playing better than anybody in the country. I think there’s like 30, 40 teams that could get to the Final Four.”
Is Kentucky one of those 30 or 40 teams?
“At this point, probably not, but by March that’s what our plan would be. And I would tell you that even teams like VCU, teams like Butler, those teams all have a chance,” Calipari said. “You have teams ranked in the top 20 that, I think one team got beat by 30 at home last night. I mean, that’s why I say it’s one of those years. It’s just like a couple years ago, where I’m worried about my team. That’s all I got to worry about. Get my team right.”
Calipari says the lack of a dominant team is good for Kentucky this year.
“It’s great for all of us out there. OK, who’s going to have their team playing the best in March? Because that’s what it’ll be about. Whose team is playing the best in March?” he said.
“There are different teams that have played well early. I mean, Arizona’s playing well. Couple crazy wins, but they still won those games. They’re learning how to win. You might throw them in that bunch. I don’t know. But again, I haven’t seen Arizona play three minutes. So I won’t know. But it feels right now like it was a couple years ago.”
SEC struggles: Calipari says based on what Kentucky has done, he’s not ready to say the Southeastern Conference is struggling because of non-conference losses as the Wildcats get set to start conference play tonight at Vanderbilt.
“We played Duke at a neutral site; they’re a pretty good team. We played Notre Dame at home; I think they lost in 1942 there. And we played a team in Louisville which was in the top five in the country and don’t lose very often there,” he said. “We had our chances in those games. And we lost to Baylor at home, which was a tough loss, and we deserved to lose. Again, that’s us.
“I don’t know around the league. All I know is Florida’s really good. I played and coached against Tennessee. I’ve seen Missouri play. I know how good they can be. You look at Ole Miss. No one’s even talking about them right now. LSU is playing better.
“You can say, ‘Well, you don’t have this and you don’t have that.’ Well, we’re getting in league play and it’s all going to shake out. I left teams off there, whether it be Vandy or whoever else. You’ve got other teams that are going to do fine.
“We’ve maybe dropped some games, and I can’t even tell you who’s dropped games to what, because I’m not paying attention that way. My focus is on my team. We’ve lost some games, but those teams that we’ve lost to haven’t lost many games. And we weren’t ready, when you’re playing four freshmen, to beat those kind of guys.”
Former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall said he thinks the grind of 18 SEC games could help Calipari’s team.
“The level of competition will be more stable. It’s not like you are playing a North Carolina one night and then Mississippi Valley State the next game. It’s going to be a steady mixture of pretty good clubs and than can help you develop confidence,” Hall said.
“I think the team will grow from that confidence, and once they find themselves and get to playing for the lettering on the front of the jersey and realize they have to play together to achieve their goals they will get better from playing consistent competition.
“Look at the way (Willie) Cauley-Stein has already improved. He just gets better and better. With him and (Nerlens) Noel, they are really big and really good. They just need to be challenged more consistently, and they will get that in the SEC.”
Communicate: With the benches at the end of the floor at Memorial Gym rather than on the sideline as they are in other places, communication between a coach and players can sometimes be difficult at Vanderbilt.
“They’ve got to communicate with each other. Pretty much, the point guard’s got to be in tune with you because if he’s turning around looking at you, he’s going to lose the ball. We’ve done OK down there,” Calipari said. “We haven’t played our best games, but I’ll tell you every game we’ve played against them have been wars.
“For three years, they had the same team. Now they’re going through what we’re going through: a totally different team. But for three years they had the same team, and it was an outstanding team. They were wars. Every game we played against them was a war.”
Freshman Alex Poythress knows plenty about the Vanderbilt setup because he’s from nearby Clarksville, Tenn., and almost went to Vanderbilt.
“I have been there and know about the benches,” Poythress said. “I remember how weird the gym is and how the benches are on the baseline.”
He joked it could be “good or bad” having Calipari so far away at times during the game.
Poythress has several family members and friends coming to the game and says it is “exciting” to go back home.
“At the end of the day it’s just another basketball game. We just have to take care of business and win the ball game,” he said.
Calipari isn’t worried about Poythress trying to do too much since he has been pushing his freshman to play with more energy.
“If it’s an effort thing, he can do as much as he wants. Just go ’til you pass out,” Calipari said.
He says Poythress accepts coaching well and seems to want to change some habits that have frustrated the UK coaches.
“To listen and change what you do is two different things. He’s respectful and he’s not (bucking against it). Is he responding to everything? No. That’s because it’s really hard. It’s like anybody else. You get in a comfort level and someone tries to push you out of that comfort level, you fight it,” Calipari said.
“Someone tries to get you to play harder and you don’t, sometimes it becomes embarrassing when everybody’s watching that you’re not able to do it and makes it doubly hard to break through.
“As soon as he finds out that he can do this — every great player out there, there was a point in his career that he had to learn what Alex is learning: ‘I got to bust through this when I’m tired. I cannot look exhausted. I cannot look like I’m (tired). And I don’t need anybody to alibi for me. I don’t need that. What I need is to just change.’ You got to recognize it first, which he has. Now you got to change it.”