Kentucky seeking team chemistryPublished 1:55am Tuesday, January 15, 2013
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari is hoping his young Kentucky Wildcats finally get the message after their latest lesson in what it takes to win.
His team appeared to be progressing from a disappointing nonconference showing. Then came Saturday’s loss to Texas A&M — Kentucky’s first at home in Southeastern Conference play under Calipari.
The Wildcats (10-5, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) believe there’s time to regroup and fulfill expectations of winning another league title, and Tuesday night’s game against Tennessee (8-6, 0-2) offers a good opportunity to reboot.
Calipari hopes the 83-71 loss to the Aggies will finally help his young Wildcats squad “buy in” to his philosophy of being successful through commitment, hustle and trust — traits Kentucky has sporadically demonstrated this season.
Freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein said the Wildcats seemed to embrace Calipari’s philosophy after three weeks of conditioning and team building in “Camp Cal,” winning four of their final five nonconference games. But Kentucky stumbled in its SEC opener, allowing Vanderbilt to go an 18-0 run before escaping with a 60-58 road win; Texas A&M scored 11 straight against the Wildcats to break the game open.
“The difference is we weren’t in conference play,” Cauley-Stein said. “The SEC’s a tough league and we weren’t playing that many games before, just doing a lot of practice. It seemed like were moving forward and in it together but once the (league) games started it seemed like we reverted back to the old us in the beginning.”
The Wildcats’ early season struggles were tied in part to players trying to do too much individually rather than trusting each other. Some adjustment was to be expected considering the defending national champions were trying to blend their latest group of heralded rookies — Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and Cauley-Stein — with a group of holdovers featuring no returning starter along with transfers Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays, a fifth-year senior.
Calipari has noted that that’s one difference between this year’s group of freshmen and recent rookie classes, particularly last year’s tandem of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist that led Kentucky to its eighth title. Despite their obvious talent and leadership skills, the coach noted their willingness to work with veterans such as Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Darius Miller and Marquis Teague.
The lack of experience, inconsistent point guard play and effort has all added up to Kentucky falling out of the Top 25 for the first time under Calipari and the end of the Wildcats’ 54-game home winning streak.
There’s “no one here to mimic,” Calipari said. “There is no one here to imitate. This team doesn’t have the stopper that those other teams have had, one guy to just go guard somebody. But this team has some things that those other teams didn’t have. I’ve never had a team this long. We’re an attacking team, which is pretty good but those two areas, when a team gets on a run and you don’t have a guy that just says, ‘let me guard him.’ That’s the difference.
“We’re still developing things within this team and that happens over time. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in one game. There has to be crisis along the way and they’ve got to adjust to it. They’ve got to show and grow, learn from it.”
Harrow’s recent improvement to become Kentucky’s point guard has helped the process. But Saturday’s game showed that the Wildcats’ current edition has yet to develop that same selflessness on a consistent basis.
Against Texas A&M, Kentucky struggled inside and on the perimeter. The Wildcats were outrebounded Kentucky 35-30 and Aggies fifth-year senior Elston Turner scored 40 points, including six of his team’s nine 3-pointers.
Unless the mindset changes in a hurry, Kentucky could also be facing a second consecutive league loss. Tennessee is eager to prove itself in the SEC and know there’s no better way to do that than against the Wildcats.
“They’re as talented as any of the Kentucky teams,” Volunteers guard Skylar McBee said. “They don’t necessarily jell as well as some of the other (Kentucky) teams that I’ve seen have. … I don’t think they have the leadership from an older players’ standpoint that the other teams have had. Hopefully, we can get in there and get them rattled early, and hopefully that will sustain throughout the game.”
Tennessee’s main goal against Kentucky is avoiding falling behind big. The Vols trailed Xavier by 10 before rallying to win 51-47; they were down 21 against Memphis before losing by just five. The Volunteers played Alabama much closer in Saturday’s 68-65 loss but couldn’t overcome 16 turnovers.
Tennessee is confident they can win at Rupp Arena. Jordan McRae is averaging 24.3 points over his last three games and ranks second in SEC contests with a 23.5-point average. The Volunteers have also done well against defending national champions, going 7-2 in nine such games — including two wins against Kentucky in 1999.
Calipari understands the Vols’ positive attitude — his Wildcats are vulnerable.
“If there is a change, no one late in this season is going to want to play this team,” Calipari said. “Right now, it appears everyone wants to play this team.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.