LEXINGTON, Ky. — Coach John Calipari might feel worse about his Wildcats’ two-game losing streak that dropped Kentucky four spots in the Top 25 to No. 8 if his young team had been beaten soundly in those contests.
Not that he feels good about Kentucky letting two winnable games slip away by making mistakes at crucial moments.
Nonetheless, Calipari believes Kentucky (17-4, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) will make the necessary adjustments as it enters the midpoint of its conference schedule with Tuesday night’s game against Georgia (13-8, 4-4) before heading to No. 24 Florida on Saturday. But the coach said the Wildcats must be tougher and more focused than they’ve shown in losses last week to No. 3 Kansas and at Tennessee.
“I’m not panicked,” Calipari said Monday. “After watching the tape, I walked away and thought it’s all fixable. But when you watch the tape, I did less coaching last year than I’m having to do now and that’s a big (difference). Until they’re doing this off one another and understand what each of them has to do, they can’t be the team they can be.”
Midseason growing pains aren’t uncommon for a Kentucky. The Wildcats annually face a roster makeover of highly touted freshmen and last year they also lost back-to-back games to the Jayhawks and Volunteers – but in reverse order.
Three years ago, they lost four of seven entering the SEC tournament before regrouping to reach the NCAA championship game. Even the Final Four team that began 38-0 two seasons ago endured SEC challenges that threated their perfect start.
Calipari’s yearly task seems to be making sure the Wildcats’ composure improves with more SEC challenges looming.
Better decision making is a good starting point after Kansas scored 21 points off 17 Kentucky turnovers in Saturday’s 79-73 loss in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. The Jayhawks’ mixture of zone and man defenses slowed down the Wildcats and kept the ball away from leading scorer Malik Monk and 6-foot-10 Bam Adebayo for stretches.
“Sometimes we make harder plays for the team instead of easier plays,” sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe said afterward. “In that stretch, we didn’t touch the ball and that’s something we’ll work at and just get better with over time.”
The end result is often forced perimeter shots or turnovers, not to mention slowness getting back on defense. Even when the Wildcats set up on the other end, Kansas outscored them 44-34 and was nearly even on the boards (35-34).
Calipari said that Kentucky can’t allow drives to the basket and not winning the 50/50 balls to Georgia, which beat Texas 59-57 in the Challenge to end its own two-game slide.
The Bulldogs feature an impressive scoring tandem in 6-8 junior forward Yante Maten (19.7 points per game) and senior guard J.J. Frazier (15.5), who combined for 35 points against the Longhorns. Kentucky counters with the nation’s fourth-ranked offense (91.3), but its coach also wants the Wildcats to reclaim the mental and physical edges that made them hard to beat not long ago.
“This is all stuff that when you’re coaching young kids, you have to go through and reinforce,” said Calipari, who showed players video of every turnover against Kansas to drive home his point.
He added, “I’ve still got the same guys that if we had won (those) two games we would have had votes for No. 1. And I would have said, `We’re not No. 1 because we still have these issues.”‘
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