Wiedmer: Calipari impressed with Vols

Wiedmer: Calipari impressed with Vols

January 15th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE -- Given enough time, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari would get around to discussing his own second-ranked Wildcats and their nervous 65-62 road victory over Tennessee on Saturday afternoon.

But first he felt obliged to praise the vanquished Volunteers and praise them lavishly.

"I am so impressed with what Coach [Cuonzo] Martin has done," he said. "I don't really care what their record is, [Tennessee] is an NCAA tournament team. Just win games and you're in the tournament."

The record will show that the Vols have won eight and lost nine heading into Wednesday night's contest at Georgia, which means they couldn't even get into the NIT if it began today.

But the record alone doesn't reflect that UT's last three games -- including two losses -- were against ranked foes. Or that the Vols held the Wildcats 15 points below their average. Or that UT led the Cats at halftime by the most points (six) anybody's led UK all season.

The record also doesn't show how the Big Orange pushed that lead over Big Blue to eight with 13:05 to go before UT point guard Trae Golden needed a breather. UK rallied in his absence, cutting the lead to one.

The Vols never again led by more than three and trailed by eight before two late UT 3-pointers made it 62-60 with 30 seconds left.

Three UK free throws in four attempts in those final 30 seconds kept the Vols from a shot at victory, but it didn't keep Calipari from taking a thinly veiled shot at former UT coach Bruce Pearl's full-court defense while continuing to praise Martin.

"I keep coming back to the fact that if you want to win championships, you've got to be able to guard in the halfcourt," Calipari said. "You've got to be physical and you've got to have toughness. [Martin]'s doing it by changing the culture."

Assuming the Vols don't win enough games to reach March Madness, Pearl's remaining fans understandably will shout that the culture under Bruce Almighty included six NCAA trips in six seasons, a brief stay at No. 1 and the school's first-ever run to the Elite Eight.

Until Martin can match or beat those numbers, Pearl's legacy will endure as the most successful run in program history, even if NCAA wrongs terminated his career last spring.

But anyone watching Saturday's game also had to be impressed with how hard the Vols battled from the opening tap to the closing horn.

Or as UK freshman Anthony Davis -- who led the Wildcats with 18 points -- noted of the Vols' early surge: "Tennessee was tougher, more physical."

The Vols got exceedingly more physical in the paint with the debut of 6-foot-8, 250-pound (at least) freshman Jarnell Stokes, who joined the squad last week following his high school graduation in Memphis.

"Jarnell played real well," Martin said of the 18-year-old's 17 minutes moving his size-20 sneakers around the court. "He had great energy. He wasn't intimidated at all. He did a tremendous job."

Added UT junior forward Jeronne Maymon, who finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds: "We can really cause teams problems in the post with Jarnell out there now. Once we get a little better chemistry [with Stokes], we're going to get better and better."

Only time will tell if Calipari is correct that the Vols can wind up in the NCAA tourney. Only 14 games remain and one of them is against defending national champion Connecticut on Saturday.

Let's say UT exits the UConn contest with a 9-10 record. The Vols would probably need to win at least 10 of their remaining 12 league games to have a chance, and that's assuming they then can win at least one, if not two, in the SEC tourney to join the 20-win club.

Still, playing as they did against UK gives them at least a sliver of a chance, especially if Stokes can permanently join Maymon on the court to give the Vols the most physical post duo in the SEC.

Seemingly anticipating that Bruise Brothers probability, Calipari said, "We better get more physical by the time we play them again, or we're going to have issues."

If those issues become a UK loss 16 days from today, it might do much more than change UT's current culture. It might change the Vols' travel plans come March.