LEXINGTON, Ky. — Darius Miller kept waiting for John Calipari to lose it.
Standing in the huddle on Monday night with No. 4 Kentucky trailing red-hot Miami (Ohio) by 18, the sophomore forward kept waiting for his coach to drop the player-friendly approach and start testing the physical limits of his clipboard.
There was no tirade, the Wildcats got something else entirely.
Calipari had been hoping for a moment like this early in the season, a chance for him to see how his talented but largely inexperienced squad reacted to adversity for the first time.
“I was ecstatic,” Calipari said.
And his team was shocked.
“I’ve not really seen anybody be positive when you’re down 18, but he was,” Miller said.
Calipari evenly — but not harshly — challenged his players to prove themselves.
The Wildcats responded with an 18-3 run to get back in the game before eventually winning it 72-70 on freshman guard John Wall’s 15-foot jumper with 0.5 seconds left.
The genesis for the rally came in the huddle during that first half timeout, when Calipari decided a pat on the back and a friendly shove in the right direction would go a lot further than stomping his shoes on the Rupp Arena floor.
“If they need me and I know they’re close to the edge, I’m not going to push them over,” Calipari said.
His response was jarring for the seven Wildcats left over from former coach Billy Gillispie’s tenure, when every mistake seemed to be met with either sarcasm or disdain.
Miller dodged the question when asked about the difference between Calipari and Gillispie, saying “I couldn’t tell you.”
When reminded by a reporter that he probably could tell the difference but apparently didn’t want to, Miller just shrugged.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he said, smiling.
It’s a grin Miller could afford after Kentucky (2-0) escaped the RedHawks, who showed the Wildcats there’s plenty of work to be done if they want to live up to their considerable preseason hype.
For all the good Calipari took from Kentucky’s stirring rally, there was plenty of bad to go around. The Wildcats let the RedHawks make 15 3-pointers, and turned the ball over 15 times.
And while the Wildcats, as a whole, have embraced Calipari’s “dribble-drive” offense, they’re still struggling to learn how to play together.
“Our execution stinks because everybody is trying to get theirs,” Calipari said. “And when you try to get yours, you’re not worried about the play you’re worried about ‘gimme the ball!’”
He would have rather not had the Wildcats get down 18 to start figuring it out. Yet he got the response he wanted, particularly from freshman center DeMarcus Cousins, who sleepwalked through the first half but came to life after teammate Daniel Orton took a vicious elbow near his eye that required six stitches to close.
Cousins finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds, almost all of them in the second half, to help Kentucky come back. Giving that kind of effort on a consistent basis takes time to learn, and Cousins acknowledged he’s still getting adjusted to playing at full speed all the time.
“Coach Cal says we’re supposed to run fast, but our mind should be moving slow, so it’s just something we’ll have to keep working on,” Cousins said.
Better to work on it after a win than a loss, though the Wildcats are taking comfort in the fact that they’re hardly the only Top 5 team in the country that’s looked a little out of sorts early in the season.
Calipari admitted watching No. 1 Kansas struggle to put away Memphis — Calipari’s former team — on Tuesday night and feeling better about the state of his club.
“Maybe they’re just as bad as we are,” he said with a laugh.