Kentucky coach John Calipari watches his squad during a loss to Kansas in the State Farm Champions Classic last Tuesday. ((Phil Elsworth/ESPN Images)
KENTUCKY VS. GEORGIA TECH
at State Farm Arena, Atlanta
When: Sunday, 5 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network
Records: Kentucky 1-2, Georgia Tech 0-2
Last meeting: Kentucky 67, Georgia Tech 53
Series: UK leads 57-15
By KEITH TAYLOR
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari is used to starting over and is convinced the Wildcats will eventually turn the corner.
“We were so unsure of ourselves,” the coach said Friday. “I’m the one that usually forgets because the staff has to remind me. We were the same way last year. So, just know that we were the same way and the year before, and the year before, and the year before, except the year that we had all of those kids and we did the platoon.”
The Wildcats (1-2) have lost two straight going into Sunday’s contest against Georgia Tech in the Holiday Hoopsgiving in Atlanta and Calipari is using different techniques in an effort to end the slide.
“This is a different group that needs something different,” he said. “I’ve got to light a fire for them to play differently than they’ve ever played.”
Part of Calipari’s plan is to invoke more toughness in his team’s practice sessions.
“We’re rebounding, we’re blocking shots, we’re scrambling,” Calipari said. “There are things that we are going to try and do, but we can’t get away from what I said at the beginning. This has to be a defensive team. They roughed us up in the second half and we weren’t able to combat it. So, we made practices a little rougher.”
In addition, the team’s maturity is an issue so far early in the season.
“This is another team that needs to show tape,” he said. “You can’t think that you’re just going to dribble and you’re playing one-on-one with four or five guys watching. You’re not playing that way here. They’re immature. Their response to things isn’t always what a mature player would do, but that’s normal here. We’ve got work to do.”
Calipari is looking for team leaders in the absence of sophomore Keion Brooks, who has missed the first two games because of a leg injury. Prior to the season, Calipari was counting on Brooks to carry the load, especially early in the season.
“Every year, I want 12 guys to learn what it means to be a leader,” Calipari said. “I was hoping that would be Keion but you know what? After the last game, he did take a little bit of a leadership role. For the time being it’s probably going to be staff-driven.”
Calipari added that it will take time for his team to become empowered.
“But if we’re ever going to be the team I think we can become, they have to be enabled and it has to be player-driven,” he said. “You’ve gotta have leaders. You can’t have everybody (think), ‘Let me get mine.’ You can’t play that way.’”
In the loss to Kansas, Rhode Island transfer Jacob Toppin scored six points and gave Calipari a potential future leader.
“(He) made plays, (he) ran (and) played with great energy,” Calipari said. “When you bring a guy off the bench, he’s got to lift your team, not take your team back. If you’re playing for yourself and you’re not thinking in those terms, you’ll come in and try to just get yours. You can’t play that way coming off the bench.”
“I’m just trying to do anything to help my team succeed and win,” said Jacob Toppin.
“Whether that’s hustle plays, whether that’s scoring, whether that’s rebounding, I’m just there to help my team win,” he continued. “We need to start playing more as a team. We need to share the ball more — that’s really the biggest thing. We need to share the ball. Once we start sharing the ball with each other, we’re definitely going to start playing better.”