John Calipari: Top-ranked Kentucky needs to get tougher
LEXINGTON, KY. >> Kentucky coach John Calipari cautioned anyone who would listen that all the talent possessed by his latest freshman class would mean nothing if they didn't also show a little toughness.
If he was having trouble getting his team's attention, he's not anymore.
The top-ranked Wildcats showed none of that needed grit in an 87-77 loss at UCLA, a game in which Calipari's concerns about his team's resolve painfully unfolded in Kentucky's first regular-season loss in nearly 21 months.
"We got kicked, we got beat, we move on," Calipari said. "We've had a pretty good run, and we'll see if we can get it going again."
Kentucky (7-1) has until Wednesday when they face Eastern Kentucky to find some of that missing fortitude.
Against the Bruins, the Wildcats shot 38 percent, were edged 38-37 on the boards and looked lost for the most part in the school's first visit to Pauley Pavilion. Calipari's hope was that the Wildcats remember that empty feeling they had during the five-hour overnight flight home and learn from it.
"We have a couple of guys not fighting right now, but we're going to get there. It's early in the season," said sophomore guard Tyler Ulis, who played with a wrap on his injured right elbow.
Though three-quarters of the season remains for Kentucky, upcoming non-conference games this month against Arizona State, Ohio State and archrival Louisville adds some urgency to getting problems corrected. Not that Calipari expects neighboring EKU to be a cakewalk after his Wildcats led for just 30 seconds against the Bruins.
Then there is the questionable status of 6-foot-9 junior forward Marcus Lee, who left the game against UCLA with a head injury about 4 1/2 minutes in and did not return. Team spokesman Eric Lindsey said Friday afternoon Lee is being evaluated on a daily basis.
Without their leading rebounder, things went downhill for against UCLA, which led by as many as 15 points.
Much-heralded Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere drew the most scrutiny after contributing just six points, one rebound and four fouls. UCLA's Thomas Welsh had 21 points and 11 rebounds in comparison.
The 6-10 Haitian's seeming reluctance to get physical against the Bruins even drew a push from the 5-9 Ulis in an effort to get him more involved.
"We've got to stay on him," Ulis said of Labissiere while downplaying the shove as a heat-of-the-moment reaction. "I pushed him or whatever to get him to get the rebound, but at the same time I told it 'you're good, it's OK."'
Freshman guards Isaiah Briscoe and Jamal Murray provided some bright spots with 20 and 17 points respectively while junior forward Derek Willis added 11 points and six rebounds. But Willis and Alex Poythress also fouled out and several others had at least three fouls, which Calipari hoped would offer another lesson for his youngsters.
The coach also pointed the finger inward after Kentucky's first regular-season loss since March 8, 2014 at Florida. Calipari said he was outcoached by UCLA counterpart Steve Alford for setting a slower, physical pace that took Kentucky out of its rhythm.
But what really bothered Calipari was that the Wildcats didn't counterpunch, which needs to change.
"We have to be tougher than the people we're playing," he said, "and if you don't understand that, then we've got to figure it out."
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