By LARRY VAUGHT
His team is coming off not only rare back-to-back losses since his arrival at Kentucky, but coach John Calipari watched his team lose by a combined 47 points at Florida and Tennessee last week.
Now the Wildcats have dropped off the national radar again and despite their 17-8 overall record and 8-4 Southeastern Conference mark seem a longshot to even make the NCAA Tournament with star freshman center Nerlens Noel out for the season with a knee injury.
Yet Calipari threw out a different scenario to envision Tuesday as the Cats prepare to host Vanderbilt tonight.
“We can make what we want of this season. Whatever we want to make of this season, we can do. We could be the story of the year — of recovery and all that,” said the Kentucky coach. “We can do that if they choose to do that. And we don’t have to win every game. You just have to know that we’ve got to keep getting better and figure out how this team has to play and then see how we can do it and how we march on.
“But you can’t … our guard play is shaky at best. Toughness around the basket, getting balls, we’re not doing that. Obviously, defensively, it was poor (at Tennessee), so we’re changing a little bit. We’ve got some issues to deal with, but the biggest thing is just battle, fight. You’ve got nothing to lose, go after it. But we’ll see.”
Senior guard Julius Mays, one of only two players Calipari thought played well in Saturday’s 30-point loss at Tennessee, said the team is not “looking back” at what happened.
“We are only looking ahead. We know the task in front of us and we’re just ready to get started,” Mays said. “I just don’t think guys minds were right the day before leaving for Tennessee. That was the worst practice of the year by far. We were just out of it mentally and we really didn’t get anything accomplished. We’re looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd. Definitely want to rebound after a two-game losing streak, so we’re looking forward to a home game.”
Kentucky won 60-58 at Vanderbilt Jan. 10 after building a 47-31 lead. The Cats gave up 20 offensive rebounds in that win, and that lack of toughness inside has been a year-long problem.
“It started when Maryland outrebounded us (in the first game). Since then every team has tried to come in and bully us,” he said. “We just have to be a lot more physical, have to put more bodies on people. Everybody has to rebound because we can’t depend on just Alex (Poythress) or Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Kyle (Wiltjer) to try and get rebounds. Everybody has to do their part to get two or three rebounds.”
At Tennessee Saturday, Cauley-Stein and Poythress managed just two rebounds each in UK’s first game without Noel, it’s top shot blocker and rebounder.