Amid Kentucky’s euphoria in St. Louis last weekend some rain did fall. After the victory over No. 1 seed Wichita State, Willie Cauley-Stein spoke of the need to correct mistakes.
“Really, really, really good teams in the (NCAA) tournament, they don’t have those mistakes,” he said. “We were fortunate enough. We battled through a lot of bad mistakes and easy turnovers to win it. At a high, high level, you can’t have those.”
Kentucky did not have a large number of turnovers against Wichita State (11), but the Cats committed eight in the first half of that NCAA Tournament third-round game. Perhaps not coincidentally, UK trailed 37-31 at intermission. Two nights earlier, 15 turnovers complicated Kentucky’s victory over Kansas State.
Turnovers figure to be key when Kentucky plays archrival Louisville on Friday night in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis. The Cardinals’ signature strategy is pressure defense. If UK can hold on to the ball, Louisville’s pressure might merely open up the floor.
As if on cue, Coach John Calipari noted on his radio show Tuesday that Kentucky would need to withstand physical pressure. A key in the game, he said, would be “Can you play through physical play?”
Kentucky guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 17 turnovers in St. Louis: 12 by Andrew, the point guard, and five by Aaron, a shooting guard.
Not that anyone was complaining about how the Harrison brothers played. Rather, UK players noted the twins’ improvement as a reason for Kentucky’s upward trend, which continued with two victories in St. Louis.
“Settling into what they came here to do,” Cauley-Stein said. “Everybody thought things were going to happen early in the year, and that’s not realistic. Before you play any college games and you have that amount of hype on you ... it’s hard to do what you think you’re going to do.”
ESPN analyst Dick Vitale cited guard play as making the crucial difference in Kentucky moving past a regular season of struggle to an NCAA Tournament run. During the regular season, Kentucky came oh-so-close to a much better record than 1-6 against ranked opponents.
“They were just a guard play here or there, a turnover,” Vitale said of the Cats. “You could see the potential, obviously.”
The sobering undercurrent in St. Louis involved the need for UK players to continue to improve. Jarrod Polson noted two reasons UK fell behind Wichita State.
“It’s the defense,” he said. “In the first half, we had a lot of turnovers, and we were giving up easy baskets, like layups and backdoors. We weren’t talking a lot.
“We made an adjustment of talking and helping each other out. The big difference was helping the helper, not letting them get easy layups.”
Cauley-Stein stressed the importance of effort, which echoed a season-long theme for Kentucky.
“We’re not really trying to prove anything,” he said. “We’re just trying to play to the best of our ability, and just play hard. ... Our Kryptonite is playing hard. And now we’re starting to do that. That’s basically what we’re focusing on: playing through 40 minutes hard and playing defense like we’ve been playing.”
When noting UK’s improving defense, Calipari reinforced the need for not getting satisfied.
“Our defense is starting to be better than it’s been,” he said. “But we’re still not all playing well.”
Calipari did not excuse himself from needing to make improvements.
When discussing Andrew Harrison’s better performances of late, the UK coach said, “I did not do a great job with him early on this year. I didn’t. And I’m the first to admit it.
“But I did later, OK?”
Laughter filled the post-game news conference Sunday.
Moments later, Calipari said much the same thing about UK’s offensive anchor, Julius Randle. Calipari said CBS analyst Greg Anthony noted after the game how Randle played effectively (10 points, 10 rebounds, career-high six assists) without forcing the action.
“Again, I tell you, I didn’t do a great job with him, didn’t define how he needed to play,” Calipari said. “It took time, but I am not sure they were ready to listen to me in the middle of the season. So maybe it has worked out fine for everybody.”