The only person that knows if John Calipari got himself tossed on purpose Saturday afternoon at Bud Walton Arena isn’t talking, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he did.
“The whole momentum changed after that in Kentucky’s favor … in every way, shape and form,” Eric Musselman said later. “We had the momentum during the dead ball, and after that, it completely changed.”
The Wildcats turned a three-point Arkansas lead with 8:19 to play into a 10-point lead four minutes later and held on the rest of the way for a 73-66 win.
With the game tied at 44 and most of the 19,200 in attendance smelling blood in the water, Calipari wandered too far onto the floor and get hit with a technical, which he then pushed into an ejection.
The guess here is none of that happened by accident. Calipari has been around the block before, his team was not exactly playing its best and needed a spark.
Apparently he didn’t tell anyone. A lot of coaches will alert his second-in-command to be ready when he’s planning on getting tossed. Kentucky associate coach Kenny Payne didn’t get that at all.
“Unfortunate,” he said later about Calipari’s ejection. “For me especially.”
Payne, who was part of Louisville’s 1986 national championship team, said later he didn’t think Calipari was trying to get thrown out.
“I seriously doubt it,” he said with a big grin. “I wish if he had done it on purpose he would have given me a heads-up.”
He simply told the players it was crunch time.
“It’s an execution game,” he said. “They last thing [Arkansas] is expecting us to do is rebound and push the ball up the court. Well, that’s what we did.”
He said Calipari gave him a big hug in the locker room after the win and congratulations. If they didn’t have it in their game plan to do that, Payne made a decision that may have completely changed the course of the game.
For all of their preparation work, Musselman may not have put in the plan. Dejected after the game, he sounded like he was expecting something different.
“Surprisingly, their post-ups didn’t really hurt us with our lack of size,” he said. “The rebounding did, for sure, but it wasn’t like they were just throwing it in the post and that was hurting us.”
The sold-out crowd was there for the tip and didn’t leave early. On the floor you could sense the momentum starting to swing to the Hogs with the crowd getting more amped up as the score tightened.
Then it slipped away when Calipari either made a shrewd coaching move … or just flat got lucky.
Musselman actually looked almost shocked later.
“This one hurts,” he said. “We had an incredible environment in the building. We don’t want to let our fans down and it’s hard to create that atmosphere and get that atmosphere back. The locker room’s hurting.”
Now he’s got a different challenge in that he can’t let Kentucky beat the Hogs twice in one week.
Arkansas has to go on the road to Mississippi State for a Wednesday night game.
“Right now we’re all hurting,” Musselman said. “We need a day to regroup. We’ve got to try to learn from a loss.”
Calipari made some coaching moves like shutting down Hogs’ guard Jimmy Whitt, Jr., who ended up with 14 points … all in the second half.
But the biggest move may have been getting thrown out, which wasn’t planned before the game, but might have been one of those in-game decisions.
It was one Musselman couldn’t counter.