A 1-8 team rolling into Rupp for a late game after the semester has ended doesn’t seem like the perfect recipe for excitement, but the Cats game against Mississippi Valley State on Saturday night generated some of the most exciting moments of the year for UK fans. Not all of them were related to the game but for a crowd to get as excited as it did considering the circumstances and its opponent was impressive.
I also might have an excitement bias because this is the first game I’ve been able to attend with a press credential. A big thank you to Nick and Strait Pinkie for that. It was an incredible experience, and for the first time, I have some real substance in the form of quotes from the players and Calipari.
The game play itself wasn’t very exciting, other than a fantastic Brandon Knight half court buzzer beater to put us up by 22 points at the break. Terrence Jones got into early foul trouble and Mississippi Valley State shot the ball well enough to prevent the crowd from getting into the game for prolonged stretches.We had a lot of players compile some good numbers, but watching the game it was hard to pick out one player that played great from start to finish.
If I had to choose a player of the game it would probably be DeAndre Liggins. He was diving around on defense and continuing to display the much improved offensive game that he debuted against Indiana last week. “It feels good (to score), but that’s not what I do. If the opportunity to score is there I take it, but I’m a defensive player,” Liggins said. “That’s my role on this team and if I continue to do that then my offense is just going to come naturally.”
Mississippi Valley State’s record is actually quite deceiving. They’re a good team with quick guards and a veritable post presence in Paul Crosby. This game in Rupp was their 10th straight game outside of the state of Mississippi. They’ve played games as far away as California and Utah as well as seemingly every state with an SEC team. In typical Cal fashion, this is a team preparing for it’s slate of conference games and is preparing to win them. Don’t be surprised if this team is representing the SWAC in the NCAA tournament come March.
Even though the game play wasn’t the most riveting, there were moments during the breaks that got fans on their feet. The introduction of former Wildcat and Unforgettable, Sean Woods, as the coach of Mississippi Valley State was the first. Then Randall Cobb and Danny Trevathan came on the court to pitch the fans on painting Birmingham blue for the Wildcat’s bowl game on January 8th. Both received huge ovations from the crowd but neither one came close to the halftime honoring of the 25th anniversary of Joe B. Hall’s last game.
Surrounded by about 40 former players with Jack ‘Goose’ Givens speaking on behalf of them, Joe was honored for his success and dedication to UK basketball. It was a fantastic ceremony and I was very happy to be a witness to it. It was great to see the admiration and respect that the fan base has for one of its legends. It was just an all-around heartwarming experience.
On the opposite end of the heartwarming spectrum was the ejection of John Calipari. Apparently he was upset that the ref wasn’t willing to hear his argument after a Vargas knockdown and subsequent no-call. He stepped onto the court to speak his mind and was immediately T’d up. Coach Cal wasn’t done though. The next time down the court he got into the same ear of ref Mike Stuart and received his second and final technical. At that point, Cal got into his face old school style and was letting him have it. It was his first ejection since 1996 at UMass.
The reception from the crowd was amazing. We were up 20 on a 1-8 Mississippi Valley State team but Cal was heated and the crowd was feeding off of it. It was as raucous an environment as I’ve ever witnessed at Rupp and, if it had been a close game, would have been a huge emotional boost to the team. However, it wasn’t a close game, so the players just laughed.
“I was just shocked and then I look across the floor and see Doron laughing about it so I just kind of started laughing too,” said Darius Miller.
“I was laughing so much and then I looked at (referee Mike Stuart) and he was giving me this mean look and I was afraid he was going to give me a tech for laughing at him,” said DeAndre Liggins.
DeAndre went on to give his philosophy on dealing with the officials, “I just kind of try to be sarcastic with the refs, tell them ‘Good call’ when it was a bad call… just try to keep them guessing saying, ‘Is he really serious?’ It’s just part of the game.”
Calipari was able to laugh at himself too. When asked what he did after the ejection Cal said, “I took my coat off, put my feet up, had a drink of water and thought, ‘This isn’t so bad’. I didn’t even turn the game on until two minutes left.”
Cal quickly got serious though and addressed the problems still plaguing this young Wildcat team. “We’ve got guys that have to get better,” Cal said. He especially noted Darius’ play. Despite a decent stat line 14 points, 5 assists and 5-5 from the free throw line, Cal kept saying he expected more. “Darius can’t watch. He needs to play. I want him to be special and not just out there,” Cal said. “He needs to be the man on this team and he’s capable of that. I’m showing you this stat line and I’m telling you he’s better than that.” The issue of Darius’ confidence arose again and Coach Cal said the only way for him to build that confidence is through demonstrated performance. “It can’t be based on me. I can build him up, but the first time I jump on him for something all that confidence is gone. It’s got to be built through what he does on the court.”
If nothing else Darius might want to take a look at how Calipari handles himself on the court because if there’s one thing that his performances always demonstrate, it’s confidence.