LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—John Calipari figures the president has enough on his plate. The last thing Barack Obama needs to do is take the blame for ending Kentucky’s bid for a perfect season.
Calipari figures it’s his fault, and not the president’s, that the top-ranked Wildcats lost their focus—and their composure—in a 68-62 upset at South Carolina on Tuesday.
The game came at the end of a whirlwind 36 hours in which Kentucky rose to No. 1 for the first time in nearly seven years and received a phone call from the president as a thank you for helping raise $1.3 million for earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
It may have been a little too much for a roster filled largely with freshmen and sophomores. It may have even been a little too much for their coach, who admits getting carried away after watching the Wildcats stomp Arkansas by 31 points last weekend to ascend to the top of the polls.
Calipari said afterward that Kentucky would have “smashed” anyone in the country that day. Barely 72 hours later the Wildcats were racing for the exits as South Carolina fans stormed the court following the school’s first win over a No. 1 team.
Not that Kentucky played like it deserved the honor against the Gamecocks. The Wildcats had 15 turnovers and shot 39 percent to put a stunning halt to the program’s best start in 44 years.
“I don’t know if I got intoxicated by us winning so much, if I lost my mind and got arrogant because they were playing so well and now I got a little arrogant because they were playing so well I could say some stuff I didn’t need to say,” Calipari said. “Hopefully we’ll pull back here and figure all this out.”
The Wildcats (19-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) don’t have a lot of time, or the team that began the week atop the polls could end it looking up—way up — at No. 21 Vanderbilt (16-3, 5-0).
The red-hot Commodores have won 10 straight heading into Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena, including a relatively easy 85-76 win at No. 14 Tennessee on Wednesday.
Coach Kevin Stallings, however, isn’t exactly ready to stamp his team as a Kentucky’s biggest threat in the SEC. He doesn’t blame the Wildcats for getting a little off track after spending 10 minutes listening to the nation’s most powerful basketball player tell them he was watching.
“That was almost like a setup I think,” Stallings said. “I’m not sure the president wasn’t for South Carolina. I don’t know how John could’ve possibly gotten them focused in on that game.”
Calipari typically has a 24-hour rule following each game, meaning the team has a day to either enjoy a victory or get over a loss.
Moving forward quickly wasn’t a problem when the Wildcats went two-plus months without tasting defeat. He allows it now might be, even for a coach that has lost 141 times during his collegiate career.
While the Wildcats silently slumped home on a plane late Tuesday night, Calipari made a recruiting stop in Charlotte. He flopped onto the bed in his hotel room, exhausted. Then he noticed he was caked in sweat from stress.
“I was like, ‘What in the world,”’ he said. “So for 24 hours it is devastating. I woke up the next day, and I said, thinking about how I dealt with it, ‘This may have been good for me, forget them. Cool out. Coach your team. Get them better and start figuring out what you’ve got to do.”
Namely, finding a way to turn the page. It won’t be easy for a team that had dreams of a perfect season.
Guard Eric Bledsoe said the loss “felt like the end of the world” while star forward Patrick Patterson’s Facebook page was littered with critical comments from fans.
Patterson, who took just four shots in 35 minutes against the Gamecocks, said he tried not to take the comments personally. Still, the unrest over one loss is a bit hard to stomach, particularly considering a year ago the Wildcats were a muddled mess on their way to the NIT.
He ended up posting a brief response that doubled as an apology of sorts.
“I was just trying to let them know, don’t question us, don’t criticize us just because of this loss,” Patterson said. “We’re all human and we make mistakes and that was my mistake for not playing the way I should have played.”
Patterson stressed he’s “moving on” and spent 30 minutes before practice on Friday working on post moves with Calipari trying to get back to basics.
So are his teammates, including DeMarcus Cousins. The sometimes tempestuous big man was decidedly upbeat as the Wildcats began workouts on Friday. He pulled up his blue practice shorts and flung 3-pointers while imitating Wall—who was doing the same thing at the other end of the floor.
Cousins then walked over to teammate Darnell Dodson, grabbed a TV microphone and asked Dodson how he felt about missing a wide-open dunk against the Gamecocks.
Cousins giggled while walking away, perhaps a sign that the Wildcats understand life goes on.
Associated Press Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.