LEXINGTON – Coach John Calipari claims the Syracuse Orangemen did Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats no favors when they lost to Notre Dame this weekend, allowing UK to elevate to No. 1 in the college basketball polls.
“I was trying to get a hold of (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim, I was so mad at him,” Calipari said Monday afternoon as his Wildcats prepare to play at Georgia tonight at 9 (on ESPN). “It’s just an added thing. I just watched Georgia and Vanderbilt. Georgia had Vanderbilt beat at Vandy. I don’t know if they need anything added. They are at home against us, and it will be sold out.”
Kentucky comes into play at 19-1 overall and 5-0 in the Southeastern Conference, while Georgia is 10-9 and 1-4.
This is a rebuilding year for Georgia coach Mark Fox, but Calipari has a legitimate point in suggesting that the Bulldogs are much better than their record indicates.
Georgia lost that game at Vanderbilt, 77-66 on Jan. 14, but came back to beat Tennessee, 57-53, in overtime this past Wednesday before dropping a 66-63 game to Ole Miss on Saturday.
Freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leads Georgia in scoring at 14.1 points per game, and sophomore forward Donte Williams leads in rebounding at 5.5 per game.
The Wildcats have five players averaging in double figures, led by Doron Lamb at 14 points per game. Anthony Davis averages 13.7 points each time out, with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at 13.2, Terrence Jones 11.9 and Marquis Teague 10.5.
Davis, of course, leads Kentucky in rebounding with 10.3 per game, followed by Kidd-Gilchrist 7.5 and Jones 6.3.
Calipari says he’s telling his players to wear the No. 1 ranking with pride.
“I’ll tell these guys it’s a badge of honor, not a burden,” Calipari said. “Let’s go play. We’ll address it for a second or two, but we just have to play.”
“It’s pretty much going to be the same for right now,” Jones said. “Just for the teams playing us, we’ve got a target on our back. We’re going to have to come in every game knowing that teams are going to play their best basketball and play as hard as they can.”
Jones said the balance on this Kentucky team helps buffer some of the pressure of being No. 1, both emotionally and physically.
Asked if the younger Wildcats are vulnerable to the pressure, Jones replied: “No, especially because of how much we do it together and how much we depend on one another. It’s not really built on one player to do too much. Every guy has to put in his fair share of work.”
“It’s a great experience to be No. 1,” adds Kidd-Gilchrist. “It doesn’t change (the approach) at all. We’re young, but we’re good, too.”
Calipari grew philosophical when asked about the keys to meshing so many talented parts together, as he’s had to do each of his three seasons at Kentucky.
“To get the all-stars like Phil Jackson would do, to play a triangle offense and then defend together, and then communicate together, and then have breakfast club together, that is the challenge of what we do,” Calipari said. “Not getting a mediocre group together and getting them to play well ... ‘We’re not playing well so let’s call a time out, and I’ll show you my out-of-bounds.’ To me, that’s not coaching. Coaching becomes how do you become the best, and how do you get that group to really come together, sacrifice for one another, be their brother’s keeper, and compete.
“The crazy thing in college is that it is not the best of settings,” he added. “It’s one and done. Stuff gets overridden here. You have some of the greatest coaches in the country, in our history, not getting to a Final Four because of where they coached. Gene Keady is one of them. John Chaney is another one. They have never been to a Final Four. Does that mean they can’t coach? No, it is where they coached.”