John Calipari seems to have a gift for finding the exact right time during a season to get run.
Calipari had been tossed at South Carolina before. He stayed in this year for the finish at South Carolina, an 81-78 loss just about a week ago.
Calipari probably had a better feel for when he needed to get off the sideline, and make a production out of it, when UK rolled into Arkansas last Saturday.
The moment must have seemed right midway through the second half, when Arkansas was threatening to grab momentum and UK was typically struggling with the lead.
Double technical fouls on Calipari, and he was gone from the sidelines.
The Wildcats pulled out a 73-66 win at Arkansas, and they set themselves up for a little less noise from Calipari going into their matchup Tuesday night with Georgia.
There was some chatter before UK handled Georgia, 89-79, at Rupp Arena that Calipari was going to let his team play more, and he was going to coach less.
Calipari told the team he would like to go a full game without being actively involved in running the show.
“This team became empowered during that last game,” Calipari said. “Now I think they’re feeling that it’s about each other.”
The No. 15 Wildcats seemed to play that way in stretches before they ran their record to 14-4, 5-1 in the SEC.
They got 23 points from Ashton Hagans to go with nine assists. A couple of those assists were funky lob tries that Nick Richards has now become skilled and savvy enough to go up and get on his own. Richards was good for 20 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots.
They got good minutes from Immanuel Quickley and (gasp) EJ Montgomery. Keion Brooks had some timely, athletic follow baskets on the way to eight points, five rebounds.
Kentucky scored 89 points and went 1-for-9 from 3-point range. It didn’t need points from distance because Kentucky scored 46 points in the paint.
And it all seemed to work well with Hagans and Quickley calling a lot of the sets on offensive possessions.
“We just become a better overall team,” Brooks said of what UK could look like with everybody doing something on the floor. “You can’t lock in on four players, all of us playing hard and doing our jobs, we become basically an impossible team to defend.”
Brooks liked the approach Calipari has taken the last couple of games — let the players decide how things will go.
“We can’t rely on Cal to bail us out or save us, we’ve got to do it,” Brooks said. “The better teams that travel far in the tournament, have success in March, are player driven, they don’t rely on their coach to save them. We have to continue to hold each other accountable, continue to listen to each other.”
The Calipari teams that have become player driven usually don’t click all the way over until February, maybe the middle of February. It will take some time to see if the Wildcats keep going on their own in the right direction. They’ll get a big test Saturday at No. 18 Texas Tech.
“So, we got 13 games left,” Calipari said. “You can’t let a game pass. All day you’re preparing to play great. And you’re not just playing, you’re trying to play great. I’m not just exchanging baskets. I’m competing. I’m coming up with balls. First half our guards didn’t rebound. They outrebounded us in the first half. Second half we outrebound them by eight or nine but our guards rebounded.”
Kentucky took a long time to get rid of Georgia on Tuesday.
UK has had a tough time taking care of leads in some games.
UK seemed to have that part of things under control, putting together its best eight minutes of the season under duress of the season to finish off Arkansas.
Calipari asked his team late against Georgia if it wanted him more actively involved with coaching it to the finish.
“I said, do you like that guy? No. Great. Then finish games,” Calipari said. “It’s the same thing. We get up 15 and all of a sudden they got a chance. Why? Tough shots, breakdowns on defense, trying to make a hero’s play.”
Kentucky doesn’t need hero ball, it just needs to keep everybody on the floor involved.