Calipari, Cats look to end 2-game skid in road contest at Texas A&M

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Jarred Vanderbilt throws down a dunk in the loss to Tennessee earlier this week at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats take on Texas A&M Saturday at College Station. (Tammie Brown/Kentucky Today)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky is in dire need of a victory following two straight losses.

The Wildcats (17-7, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) hope to avoid a third straight loss for the first time in the John Calipari era when the Wildcats take on Texas A&M Saturday at College Station, the first of two straight road encounters.

“We need to win a game,” Calipari said Friday. “(We would) like to, but what if we really play well, something crazy happens and you get beat? You move on to the next game, but you know we’re getting closer. Just stay with it, and if you happen to play poorly and win a game, you have to say, ‘Guys, it’s a great win, but this is not going to do it. It’s not what we’re doing and where we’re trying to go with this.’ You want to win every game, but when you’ve got a team this young, it’s just are you getting it? When are we really going to get what we’re trying to do together?”

The Aggies (16-8, 5-6), one of the preseason favorites to win the SEC, battled injuries and suspensions early in the year and lost their first five league games before getting their act together this month. Texas A&M is one of the hottest teams in the league and carries three-game winning streak into the contest. The Aggies pulled off the impossible, defeating league-leading Auburn 81-80 earlier this week, handing the Tigers their first home loss of the season.

“Now that they’re healthy, they’re winning games,” Calipari said. “They were a top-five team to start the year and now they can go on a run of games and all of a sudden you turn around and they’re back to being a top-10 team. It’s like Tennessee, they’re very – they’re a top-15 team. They’re a top-10 team. They came in and beat us. (We) had our chances. This will be a hard game. It’s on the road.”

In wake of the rare two-game skid, the Wildcats are “staying focused.”

“We’ve all lost games throughout our whole lives so we just know we’ve got to be able to prepare for the next game,” Freshman forward Kevin Knox said. “Be able to move on, focus on the next game (and) I think the big thing with us is just making sure we stay focused, prepare because this is a hard conference and with a young team were going to experience some tough losses. Make sure that we stay positive and we just keep moving on.”

Kentucky, which edged the Aggies 74-73 a month ago in the first meeting between the two teams, has struggled to score in the past two games and averaging just 59.5 points per game in losses to Missouri and Tennessee.

“This should be a good shooting team, but we’re so long and active it doesn’t need to be a great shooting team,” Calipari said. “There are teams out there that really have got to make 12, 13, 14 3s. We’re not one of them. But, we’re a good shooting team that’s just not making shots. I hate to tell you, they’re open and some of them are missed badly, and that worries me with some of these guys. How did you miss that that badly? What is – where is your mindset right now? Because most of shooting is in their mind.”

In an effort to get his team back in track, Calipari has been juggling different lineups, especially in practice. Knox said the Wildcats have focused a lot on conditioning and ran five-on-five drills, using different combinations.

“We had a really good practice (Thursday),” Knox said. “(We) really got after it.  think it was a really good practice. I think we feel pretty good going into (Saturday). … We’re not negative or nothing like that. Just make sure we’re staying together as a team and make sure our jell is still there.”

Another point of emphasis during practice this week has been developing a knack for sharing the ball, a consistent issue for the Wildcats this season.

“We’ve been really working on that the last couple of days, making sure we get each other touches, making sure our point guards are passing the ball,” Knox said. “I’m passing the ball. Everybody is just passing the ball. Making sure that everyone like I said is getting touches. Throughout the offense we’re all getting shots that we all like. That’s something that we’re really working on as a team. I think that’s something that could really help us.”

Despite the two recent low-scoring games, Calipari doesn’t mind a defensive struggle, which he said will benefit his team, especially in the postseason, but added finishing games remains a top priority.

“It’s good though because in the NCAA Tournament, that’s the way the game is going to be played,” he said. “It’s not going to be run up and down the court and go crazy. It’s just not going to be. It’ll be a little closer to this, so they’re learning. We’re figuring it out. Late-game stuff we still have to get better at. Understandable we’re not where we need to be.”

Calipari hopes the Wildcats can begin a late turnaround Saturday against the Aggies.

Gametracker: Kentucky at Texas A&M, Saturday, 8:15 p.m., ESPN. TV: ESPN

Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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