LEXINGTON — Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari stuck to his party line Tuesday when asked if he ever doubted whether his Wildcats would reach their potential this season.
“I don’t think that way,” said Calipari, whose team takes a 28-10 record into a Final Four matchup vs. 30-7 Wisconsin Saturday night in Dallas. “It’s just like when I coach a basketball game, I never think we’re going to lose until the horn goes off and say, ‘Man, we needed more time, we lost that one.’”
Calipari said throwing in the towel is not in his DNA.
“I never give up on a player, I never give up on a team,” he said. “I just think it’s going to take longer. There are times that I get more aggressive, there are times I get more impatient, but I never stop believing.”
Calipari said he even went so far to relieve pressure off the shoulders of his players, he addressed his team at one point from a casket.
“I had to be wheeled in there in a casket, and I opened it, and I said, ‘We ain’t dead yet, boys!’” Calipari claimed. “You guys didn’t know I did that. It wasn’t for public consumption.”
Several Wildcats were asked about the truth of that anecdote, and left suspicion it is not.
Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein strolled by as Calipari met the media Tuesday, and when Calipari asked Cauley-Stein if the casket story is true, the UK big man said, ‘Absolutely.”’
Others were less definitive.
“He said he was going to,” freshman center Marcus Lee said. “When he told us that, we all started dying laughing. It was probably the funniest thing that’s happened this year.”
“Coach is crazy,” freshman forward Julius Randle said. “He comes up with the craziest things. If he would have done that, I probably would have lost it.”
Added Lee: “We were never dead, honestly. To everybody else, we were. I guess that’s what he (Calipari) was trying to come out and say.”
Ditto, said freshman swingman James Young, when asked if the players kept the faith, too.
“We knew at some point in time it was going to click,” Young said. “We knew all along. We’re a very good team. We just had to learn how to play with each other. That’s all. Once we found out how to play with each other and just listen to coach, things were a lot more smooth.”
Ovation for Lee
When asked about it, Lee admitted that he received a standing ovation earlier Tuesday in a 200-member marketing class.
“It was just awesome,” said Lee, who came off the bench Sunday to score 10 points and grab eight rebounds in the Wildcats’ Elite Eight win over Michigan. “If you could see me blush, I was probably blushing. It was pretty cool.”
Freshman guard Andrew Harrison has no concerns about complacency now that Kentucky has made the Final Four — a place few expected the Wildcats to be when post-season play began.
“You have to remember what we’ve been through,” Harrison said. “Even though we’re a young team, we’ve seen it all this season, and that’s all still in the back of our minds. A lot of people still don’t think we can win it, so we’re just going to have to go out there and play as hard as we can.”
Randle’s mother, Carolyn Kyles, attended Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen games in Indianapolis, but had to leave the Michigan game early to return to her job in Dallas. She caught the last plane out of Indianapolis that could get her back.
“I knew she was going to have to leave, so I just wanted to make sure we won so I could see her again (this weekend in Dallas),” Randle said. “She’s really excited.”
The expense of spending Sunday night in a hotel in Indianapolis was also a factor.
Calipari was asked Tuesday if he sees a day when the NCAA will allow people like Randle’s mother to receive expenses for travel to see their kids play.
“I think that is going to happen,” Calipari said. “I predicted all that stuff is going to happen. I think there is going to be a watershed in the next year or so ... that you will see stuff that I have talked about for five years happening.”
Randle said his mother has never had it easy financially.
“Just seeing her every day get up, go to work, and just take care of me and my sister, and for her to do it by herself and for her not to have much and to make sure me and my sister felt like we had everything we needed, just goes to show how strong a woman she is,” Randle said. “She did it by herself.”
But Randle said his mother would not want that to dictate his decision on whether to leave UK this spring for the NBA Draft.
“She’s always telling me just to enjoy being a college student, not to worry about taking care of her,” Randle said. “She doesn’t want to put that type of pressure on me, and there’s no need to. I’m just blessed to be here and play basketball at Kentucky. That’s all I can really focus on.”