Kentucky looks to fix slow-start problem vs. Providence

BROOKLYN, N.Y. - Ed Cooley is a little sick of Kentucky.
John Calipari doesn't blame him.
Cooley will coach Providence against Calipari's third-ranked Kentucky basketball team Sunday night at the Barclays Center, and the most appealing part of that might be the end of questions about the game, which apparently has been a hot topic in Rhode Island.
After his team's 78-69 win Friday against Fairfield, Cooley made it clear he'd heard enough discussion about the Wildcats (6-1).
"Everybody's asking me about Kentucky," told reporters "It's a game. Congratulations, they're good. They got all these great players. We got some great players, too.
"I do not want anybody to look at my team as if we're some stepchild hoping to get lucky. We're going to go down there and we're going to be confident and we're going to be passionate and we're going to play with a lot of pride. I don't game a damn about Kentucky."
Calipari can see his point.
"Ed is a good guy; he's trying to get his team ready to play," Calipari said Saturday at the Barclays Center. "And if I was him, I'd be, like, fed up with hearing about Kentucky too."
The Friars (7-1) will be "the best team we've played other than Michigan State," Calipari said. Providence plays "high-profile programs every day in the Big East," Cooley told reporters Friday. Again, Calipari concurred.
"So I would tell you that they're gonna come in here and come right after us and they're not gonna be afraid," Calipari said. "Neither is their coach. It's not happening."
If Providence follows the same script as recent UK opponents, it likely will get off to a roaring start.
The Cats have gotten off to sluggish starts in two of their last three game. They fell in hole against Michigan State that was too deep to dig out of, had to rally past an outmanned Cleveland State in the game's final seven minutes, then let Eastern Michigan hang around for a half.
"Just being more focused at the beginning of the game," forward Alex Poythress said Friday when asked about how to fix UK's sluggish starts. "Starting at the jump, realizing a team's pumped to play, you know, you got to be just as pumped to play them. Just keep on pushing. They're going to hit some shots early, but you can't worry about that."
Calipari attributed some of his teams struggles out of the gate to the fact that he's asking them to "do something a little different" at the start of games. And almost everything is different for a team with so many players who were high school seniors a year ago.
"I just think they're so young," Calipari said Friday. "We're out there with five freshmen."
They likely won't be on Sunday, when Calipari expects to move sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein into the starting lineup ahead of freshman Marcus Lee.
But Calipari said the starting lineup has had "nothing" to do with the way UK has started games.
"Marcus, the kid goes in -- if you look at his per-minute rebounds, per-minute points, he may lead the nation," Calipari said Friday. "So it had nothing to do with him. It's that Willie's playing so well."
Still, Cauley-Stein is hopeful that he can bring the energy he's been providing off the bench to his team at the start of games.
"I don't really think of it as anything special," Cauley-Stein said. "For me, I feel like my job if I'm gonna start is just to do exactly what I did and just go from the get-go so then everybody else is going from the get-go."
Clearly Kentucky needs a spark.
And the Cats could use it soon. With the exception of Michigan State, Kentucky mostly has played lightweights so far. The heavyweight bouts are coming. Providence has lost only once, and it rallied from 19 down to within two before falling short against Maryland.
Some of Kentucky's stagnant play early might be attributed to playing against opponents who see the game as an opportunity to beat a college basketball powerhouse. It might be hard for Kentucky to match that motivation.
But it needs to find a way.
"You got to be excited because you're playing basketball every day," Poythress said. "Every game day's exciting. So it's not that hard to be pumped up."
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Barclays Center (18,103), Brooklyn, N.Y.
TV: Fox Sports 1 (Justin Kutcher play-by play, Bill Raftery analyst)
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst, Matt Jones sideline); XM 85/Sirius 85
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Kentucky by 6
Series Information
Series record: UK leads 1-0
At natural sites: UK leads 1-0
Coaches' records: Calipari 1-1 vs. Providence; Cooley 0-0 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 79, Providence 78 (March 18, 1976, New York, NIT Semifinal)
Jack Givens scored 28 points and Mike Phillips added 19 points and 14 rebounds as Joe B. Hall's Wildcats beat the Friars to advance to the finals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden. Bill Eason had 25 points and eight rebounds for Providence, coached by Dave Gavitt. Kentucky, which led 39-37 at halftime, got 12 points and six assists from Larry Johnson and 10 points and 12 rebounds from James Lee. Three days later, the Cats beat Charlotte 71-67 to win the NIT championship.
Game Storylines
1. Friar Grinders: Providence can score - it posted 93 points in a win against Marist two weeks ago - but the Friars are a defense-first club, holding opponents to 61.5 points per game and 40.4 percent shooting. Ed Cooley's club limits opponents to 33 percent shooting from three-point range and outrebounds them by an average of seven per game. The Friars are a Top 10 team in statistician Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency ratings.
2. Coming Home: Sunday's game will be a homecoming of sorts for Kentucky's Dakari Johnson, who lived in several spots as a youngster but considers Brooklyn his home. Though Johnson went to junior high school in Lexington and finished his high school career in Florida, his roots are in New York. "My whole family's coming, so it's very rare for them to come see me play," Johnson said. "They don't come to see me play a lot, so I'm real excited just to go up there and play in front of them."
3. SEC Success: Providence on will seek its fifth consecutive win against a Southeastern Conference opponent over the past four seasons. The Friars beat Alabama 82-70 in 2010, South Carolina 76-67 and Mississippi State 73-63 in 2012. The streak continued this season with a 67-60 win against Vanderbilt on Nov. 22. The SEC success is a recent development. Providence is 13-16 all-time against SEC teams.