It's not very often that a 7-3 team that is on the cusp of the Top 25 is considered to be in the middle of a rough season. But at the University of Kentucky, the expectation every year is to win a national championship (with a Final Four appearance being considered acceptable).
The only person that is even more demanding of the Wildcats than the Big Blue Nation, however, is the head coach himself, John Calipari. Anyone who has watched Calipari coach or heard him speak about his goals as the leader of the UK basketball program knows just how badly he wants this team to perform up to its potential.
So as we draw closer to the annual showdown with the Louisville Cardinals on December 29, let's take a look at some of the items on Coach Cal's Christmas wish list, as he tries to get this team turned around and ready for a deep NCAA tournament run.
All stats via ESPN.com
John Calipari has spent the entire season all but begging his team to communicate with each other on the court. And even though the team's communication has improved as of late, he still says that it is not enough (per Larry Vaught).
That rings especially true when you consider that his soft spoken point guard, Ryan Harrow, has admitted to calling out screens even when the other team wasn't running them (per KentuckySportsRadio.com).
This team needs to get much better about talking to each other on the court, both in regards to calling out assignments and getting the offense in motion. This year's squad may be mostly made up of soft spoken players, but it's something they will have to overcome if they want to return to the Final Four.
Coach Cal would love nothing more than to see this group start communicating better by the time December 29 rolls around.
John Calipari has lamented that, unlike last year's team, this group almost never spends any time in the gym on their own (per Gary Graves, AP news). His recent decision to hold a large number of intense practices (affectionately referred to as 'Camp Cal') has started to pay some dividends, but that won't be enough by itself.
A young team like this (that doesn't have any senior or junior leaders like the Wildcats have had in years past) needs to be willing to push themselves just as hard as their coach pushes them in practice. Part of that comes with maturity, but it can be helped along greatly if one player decides to take the initiative—and there is no reason that person can't be a freshman.
Calipari would be smiling more these days if someone would do what Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did last season (per Aaron Smith, Kentucky Kernel) and start a "Breakfast Club" that ends up having all the players working out in the morning and bonding together as a team.
Despite the team's troubles getting their offense in sync, they've still managed to have many of their players put on absolute scoring clinics.
Whether it's Archie Goodwin throwing down monstrous dunks, Kyle Wiltjer draining three pointers, or Alex Poythress doing a little bit of everything, someone always seems to step up and score big.
But they also seem to be taking turns. When one player explodes for a big game, the others stay relatively quiet. For (a very recent) example: In Kentucky's last game, Wiltjer finally broke his shooting slump with the best offensive game of his career. Yet Poythress and Goodwin, who are the team's leading scorers, barely broke double digits.
If Calipari can ever get this team's offensive weapons to fire on all cylinders at the same time, the days of UK being out of the Top 25 will be a distant memory.
One of the most frustrating things about this year's team is watching how inconsistent they can be from one half to the next.
In their win over the Samford Bulldogs, the Wildcats came out on fire, winning the first half by a staggering 45-14 margin. But they barely ended up winning the second half, edging out Samford by a score of 43-42.
Against Morehead State, however, the opposite happened: The Wildcats struggled in the first half (32-31), but easily pulled away in the second (49-39).
The problem hasn't look as pronounced on paper due to Kentucky's weak schedule, but it's still there. Calipari would love to have his team consistently put together two halves of basketball, which they will have to do once conference play starts in January.
I've talked about this plenty of times before, but UK's defense often looks like it is simply reacting to what is happening rather than attacking and disrupting their opponent's offensive rhythm.
As Nerlens Noel continues to mature and stake a stronger claim under the basket, this is something that should improve (and seems to be improving already).
Another encouraging sign is that Harrow is getting more and more aggressive about going after the opposing point guard, which Goodwin often seemed to struggle with (or overplay to the point of a defensive break down).
This might be one Christmas wish that Coach Cal can expect to get sooner rather than later.
John Calipari has gone on record before to say that he doesn't think free throw shooting is that big of a deal.
But when you're team is shooting 63.1 percent, that's a lot of points that are being left at the charity stripe. Even a marginal improvement would be a nice boost for the offense—or just a nice stocking stuffer for the coach.
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