In Cal they don't trust: Can the Wildcats turn the corner?

John Calipari's team has issues. He knows it. The Wildcats know it. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- One imagines John Calipari, with his sly grin and well-appointed suit, walking off the stage of a postgame news conference, spinning around and placing both heels along the edge a foot or so off the ground. Kentucky's Hall of Fame coach then folds his arms across his chest, closes his eyes and floats backward into his players' awaiting arms.

Would they catch him, or would they let the 59-year-old fall to the floor with a thud?

That's the question eating at Calipari right now, a question of trust. A free-fall exercise might give him a definitive answer -- at least that way his players would be forced to make a choice -- but alas, we snap back to reality.

It's mid-February, Kentucky has just steered its way out of a troubling, four-game losing streak at home against Alabama, and Calipari believes there are still a few players left in the locker room who don't have full faith in him. He sees it in the way they respond to his coaching, in the way they play the game. "I've got a bunch of young kids that at times don't listen," he said.

They're talented kids -- six McDonald's All Americans in all -- but it's an unavoidable fact that some of them have selfish tendencies on the court. Just look at point guard Quade Green, Calipari said after beating Alabama 81-71 on Saturday. The freshman former McDonald's All American had a solid game, scoring 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting, but at one point, he missed a free throw and allowed an easy layup on the other end. Calipari went nuts, yelling at him. The problem, Calipari explained, was that Green was more upset about missing one point than giving up two.

"You're more concerned about you than us," Calipari said. "You missed a free throw. So what? You gave up a layup. That doesn't bother you, it's OK."

He added: "That's what we're kind of busting through right now."

Beating Alabama didn't break down those walls entirely. Four of Kentucky's five starters still have more turnovers than assists. They still stand around too much waiting for someone else to make a play. The Wildcats still rank 215th nationally in assists per game and 344th in 3-pointers made.

Calipari still finds himself watching loose balls go by the wayside because one player assumes the other will dive for it and they don't want to collide. It's frustrating.

"So, well, hit heads with him," he said matter-of-factly. "Two of you hit heads going after the ball then -- do that."

It's easier said than done, of course. Especially for Calipari, because he makes $7.5 million a year to do so. In fact, he's not worried about anything at all.

"I still feel great," he said, "but I'm not 18 or 19 playing at Kentucky." Win or lose, he knows he's not going anywhere.

The players, on the other hand, have future earnings to consider. They were recruited as potential one-and-dones, and no one should be surprised when they play like it on occasion.

In years past, Calipari successfully managed everyone's egos and straddled the line between the individual and the team, but this season appears different. The pieces don't fit quite right. They're not jelling. Kentucky is unranked and has the worst record through 27 games of any of Calipari's nine seasons at Kentucky. In the final minutes of a loss at Auburn last week, fans gleefully chanted, "N-I-T! N-I-T!" at the Wildcats.

Calipari told his players that it's his fault they're in this predicament, that he's the one who "failed" them. But he has also told them they're to blame, as well.

They're a fragile bunch right now, and he knows it. He has to build up their confidence, break bad habits and win enough games to get into the NCAA tournament all at the same time. And he has only a few more weeks to get them to buy in and get the job done.

The 10-point loss at Auburn last Tuesday was a bitter pill to swallow. It was just the third time in 34 games that Kentucky had lost to the Tigers and the first time the Wildcats had dropped four straight in SEC play since 2008, when they failed to reach the NCAA tournament.

The loss revealed all the flaws of Calipari's roster: a lack of ball handlers, a lack of playmakers, a lack of shooters, a lack of want-to. While Auburn's players were having fun on the court and were constantly in communication with one another, Kentucky's bunch were mostly silent and sullen. Kevin Knox was the only one with the confidence to take a contested jump shot, and he disappeared in stretches. At one point, there was a tipped pass that sailed high in the air and one -- one! -- Kentucky player ran back on defense. Everyone else stood around and hoped for a friendly carom and an open shot.

Thanks to its significant size advantage, Kentucky outrebounded Auburn, had more second-chance points and had 16 more points in the paint, yet it still managed to lose the game.

Calipari had two simple goals for his team before tipoff: guard the 3-point line and don't foul. And when Auburn had 31 points from 3 and at the free throw line in the first half, he asked his players incredulously, "Is anyone listening to me?"

Kentucky had a chance to win. But, as Calipari explained, "We made some dumb, inexperienced plays down the stretch." They were plays any Wildcats fan has plenty of experience with by now.

Hamidou Diallo, a preseason Wooden Award candidate, was nowhere to be found yet again. He still hasn't scored 20 points in a game since he did so in back-to-back games in December. When he missed a 3-pointer against Auburn that rimmed out, everyone in the arena knew he was toast, his confidence shot. Calipari stood over the redshirt freshman on the bench for a full two minutes while the game was going on, trying to encourage him but getting nowhere.

"Poor Hami," Calipari said after Diallo finished with three points on 1-of-5 shooting. "He's making strides to get better. He needed that 3 to drop, then the thing went duh-duh-dat. We would have been up seven. It just didn't go. I feel bad for him. I told him, 'Just keep working.' But he looked rattled out there, and I said, 'We gotta win the game.' You gotta worry about egos later."

Diallo was supposed to be a centerpiece of a preseason top-five team. Instead, he's a microcosm of what's ailing Kentucky.

On paper, there's an argument to be made that Calipari should bench Diallo, which is what he did late against Auburn. With the losses mounting and time running out to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament, Calipari had no choice.

But less than a week later, the lights dimmed inside Rupp Arena and the spotlight centered on Diallo again as he was introduced in the starting lineup against Alabama.

Calipari admits that Diallo has "some habits that are so bad," but he won't give up on him. He trusts Diallo to break through even though he's averaging just 7.6 points per game since the first of the year.

"It would probably be easier when a guy plays poorly just to say, 'You're out, and I'm going with these seven,'" Calipari said. "I'm just not going to do that. I'm just not."

So Diallo continues to play, and Calipari continues to tinker into the home stretch of the regular season, looking for the right mix of players.

Calipari can't feed into their doubt, but his hand has to be hovering over the panic button by now.

"You can't be stubborn and lose," said freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander before facing Alabama. "You have to give in. We're all trying to win and trying to be good, so we gotta give in."

Give in to Calipari, that is.

On Thursday, two days after the loss at Auburn, former Kentucky stars Willie Cauley-Stein and Bam Adebayo visited practice while on break for the NBA All-Star Game.

Careful to be within earshot of the team, Calipari said he asked the two of them, "Why did you trust me?"

Cauley-Stein, according to Calipari, pointed to all the NBA players on the wall to come from Kentucky, himself included.

"That's why," he said, per Calipari.

No further words needed to be exchanged. The mind games were complete for the day.

In the locker room, players said that they could feel a new sense of urgency. The Auburn loss shook them. Forward Jarred Vanderbilt said that people were finally starting to "get it" and really understand their roles on the team.

Gilgeous-Alexander described the recent run as like riding a roller coaster.

"We're fine," he said. "We're all staying positive. Once we get out of this, we'll all be rolling and be on the other side of the rainbow."

On Saturday, inside the friendly confines of their home gym, against Alabama, the Wildcats finally got on the other side of the losing streak. Their offense still struggled in spots, but they dominated the boards and played aggressive defense, forcing a handful of crucial turnovers down the stretch.

They were the hungrier team, Alabama center Donta Hall admitted. Alabama coach Avery Johnson said he saw a team playing with a feeling of desperation.

Calipari might even have seen some trust develop.

The game no longer resembled a glorified NBA tryout, with five players standing around waiting to play isolation basketball. Diallo still struggled shooting, but his energy level was good. And after playing small ball against Auburn, Calipari employed more big men against Alabama with good results. Anything to "see if we can crack through this," he said.

It wasn't pretty. Vanderbilt missed yet another point-blank layup -- teammates teased him relentlessly about it later -- but Calipari said that he was a "beast" rebounding the basketball and that he "changed the game." All told, Kentucky outrebounded Alabama 44 to 27

There was something profound about the way the Wildcats played to their strength. Quibble with their assists and shot-making ability -- "Poor Wenyen [Gabriel], it doesn't seem like he can make a 3 with his feet in the water shooting it in the ocean right now," Calipari said -- but there are few teams that rival this one in pure talent. With six players taller than 6-foot-9, there's probably not one with better length at all five positions, either.

There's a formula there -- a rudimentary yet potentially effective one -- if it isn't already too late to capitalize on it.

"We made some shots we had to make, but the biggest thing is we are what we are," Calipari said. "Like, let's go get rebounds. Forget about missing shots; go rebound. We've got 20 offensive rebounds. That was the difference in the game."

Will that strategy work against everyone? Only time will tell, of course. But maybe Diallo will snap out of it and become the difference-maker the Wildcats need on the offensive end. Maybe it's Knox who will take the next step.

The sky was falling in Lexington a week ago, and now there might be a glimmer of hope. Four regular-season games remain, including Tuesday night's contest at Arkansas, before the start of postseason play and the SEC tournament in St. Louis.

There's still time to catch Kentucky before it falls.