Calipari: Surging Tennessee will be a tough challenge for Wildcats

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Kentucky coach John Calipari and the Wildcats will take on surging Tennessee Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats lost to the Volunteers a month ago in Knoxville. (UK Athletics Photo)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky will have its hands full coming off a disappointing 69-60 loss at Missouri when it hosts surging Tennessee Tuesday night.

Although the Wildcats (17-6, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) showed signs of peaking following back-to-back victories over West Virginia and Vanderbilt in the past two weeks, Kentucky, which fell to No. 24 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll this week, took a step back in the nine-point loss to the Tigers last weekend in Columbia.

“Our issues are with us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “When we look at some of the breakdowns on defense … against Missouri, we played well enough — even with the breakdowns defensively — to win the game. It became about offense and guys missing shots.”

Calipari compared his team’s struggles to last year when the Wildcats lost three times in a four-game stretch but recovered before losing to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

“It’s all a process and it’s all step-by-step and you can’t skip steps,” he said. “I wish we could. We had to make some adjustments (last year) in how we were going to play and what was going to be successful, but that’s on me to do, which I’m trying to do. The other thing part of it is, you’ve got to play and you’ve got to compete and act like one play doesn’t matter. They all matter. It’s all the stuff we go through every year that we go through that we’re going through right now.”

The Volunteers (17-5, 7-3 SEC) have won five straight, including a 94-61 rout of Ole Miss last weekend in Knoxville. Tennessee has compiled a 6-1 mark since recording a 76-65 victory over the Wildcats on Jan. 6 at Thompson-Boling Arena.

“What Rick (Barnes) is doing in Tennessee is unbelievable,” Calipari said. “Not (only) with what he’s doing defensively, but (also) offensively, the shots they take and how they share the ball. They may share the ball with assists to made baskets better than any team in the country (and that’s) hard to get guys to do, which is exactly what we are struggling with right now.”

On the longest winning streak of the year, the Volunteers have shown no signs of letting up, and the 94-point output against the Rebels produced a season-high on the offensive end if the court. Tennessee’s defense also has limited its past seven opponents to 65 points or less.

“We don’t talk about it,” Barnes said of his team’s current winning streak. “We just talk about what we can do to get better. People have told me we’re going into a tough stretch, which we are, but it’s been tough since we started. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played.”

Calipari, who recommended Barnes for the job at Kentucky, hasn’t been surprised by his recent success at Tennessee.

“I probably wouldn’t make that call if I’d have known what he’d be doing to us,” the Kentucky coach quipped.

On a serious note, Calipari said the Volunteers will be a challenge for his squad, still seeking an edge with one month remaining in the regular season.

“We’re playing a physical team on both ends (of the floor) who are physically tough, will fight you and it’s kind of like playing West Virginia again,” Calipari said. “What are you going to do? They’re going to come at you, are you going to go at them. It’s going to be a hard game for us.”

Injury update: Calipari said freshman guard Jemarl Baker likely won’t play this season because of a back injury.

“He has a disc issue,” he said. “He’s tried to come back twice, but it hasn’t worked. I think at this point, he will be sitting out the rest of the year. Jemarl has been on the court shooting some, but he hasn’t done anything. I can’t imagine with eight games to go, that he would be able to help us.”

Calipari added that Tai Wynyard, also battling back issues, likely won’t return this season.

“I don’ think there’s any chance at this point (that he would return), he’d still be out,” the Kentucky coach said.

Gametracker: Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Tuesday. TV: ESPN

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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