Scott Sanderson's team was right where he wanted it. Lipscomb trailed by just eight points with less than two minutes to play in the first half before letting the deficit swell to 14 at the break, yet the coach felt good about the situation.
Nerlens Noel had 7 points, 9 rebounds and 7 blocks against Lipscomb (Matt McCarty/TCP)
“They're going to give us opportunities,” Sanderson said he told his team at halftime. “I kept telling our guys they would give us an opportunity.”
It took just 77 seconds of the second half to prove Sanderson prophetic. Kentucky, as it has done too often this season, came out of the locker room flat, allowing the Bisons to score four straight points and send Kentucky coach John Calipari bounding off the bench to call timeout.
It was another reminder of how young this Kentucky team is and how far it still has to go to approach the level of success Calipari's first three teams in Lexington reached. It also led to Sanderson, the son of former Alabama coach Wimp Sanderson, to offer an unfiltered assessment of the Cats after his team's 88-50 defeat.
“I'm not trying to be disrespectful at all but the start of the second half Kentucky wasn't ready to play,” Sanderson said. “They gave us every opportunity and we scored a couple of baskets in a row and they called timeout and do what good teams are supposed to do: come back and respond.
“I thought we came out in the second half, did some nice things, got the game down to 10 with 16 minutes to go and from that point on, no disrespect to Kentucky, but I think we more self-destructed than it was them. We turned the ball over 24 times and they were self-inflicted than they were because of Kentucky.”
It's been a familiar refrain for the Cats, who have been outscored 91-70 in the first five minutes of the second half in game this season. The final scores often look much more impressive than the performances themselves, which has led to extensive frustration for Calipari and his staff.
When apprised of Sanderson's comments Calipari didn't offer a rebuttal. Instead, he seemed content to let his team continue hearing how it isn't reminiscent of last year's national championship squad.
“If we don't start changing we're going to struggle,” Calipari said. “That's just how it is. We've already struggled in any game that anybody has any physical toughness to them. You either want to change or you have your excuses of why it's happening.”
Youth is part of the equation, but toughness and consistent effort appears to constitute a much larger chunk of the Cats' issues. Sanderson isn't the only coach who has seemed lukewarm in his assessment of the Cats, joining Samford's Bennie Seltzer and Portland's Eric Reveno in that regard. Still, Sanderson said the key to UK taking off is a simple one.
“Listen, Cal has won a bunch of games and there's a reason he's won a bunch of games,” Sanderson said. “They've got a bunch of really good players. The bottom line is will those kids listen?
“In our locker room we've got a big sign that says listening is a skill. He's got a bunch of All-Americans and sometimes they're hard to coach. Listening is a skill. If those guys buy in and not resist what he's trying to teach them they've got a chance to be as good as they want to be. But if they resist the coaching that's on them because he didn't win a national championship last year or being at Kentucky not being successful (before). In my opinion sitting where I'm sitting that's the key for them.”
Somewhere, Calipari was no doubt nodding in approval.