LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) – For the second time this season, Kentucky fell out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll and a return to the rankings before the postseason begins will be a hard task for the Wildcats.
Kentucky (17-8, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) plays three of their last six games on the road, starting at No. 10 and league-leading Auburn Wednesday. Following a home game against Alabama Saturday, Kentucky is at Arkansas on Feb. 20.
Following home games against Missouri (Feb. 24) and Ole Miss (Feb. 28), the Wildcats close out the regular-season at Florida on March. 3.
Despite a recent three-game losing streak, Kentucky remains in contention for one of four coveted top spots in the conference standings. The top four teams receive a bye in the SEC Tournament.
Despite the recent slide, Kentucky’s players aren’t worried getting left out of the NCAA Tournament.
“I know coach (Calipari) tells us every game, even after losses, ‘Come out and play like you just won,'” Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox said after Saturday’s loss at Texas A&M. “That kind of keeps us a little bit going, but we just gotta be able to win games. We gotta be able to figure out what’s going on and be able to win games if we want to get there.
“We have a lot of guys that really want to make it and really want to be able to get to March and play there. That’s a big experience for us so we’re going to keep working hard for it. Coach is going to keep watching film with us, but we gotta figure out how to pull away with some of these games.”
Overall, the SEC has three teams ranked in the poll, led by Auburn, which is 10th. Tennessee is No. 18, followed by Texas A&M, which made its debut at No. 21 following a win over the Wildcats last weekend at College Station.
“This league is unbelievable,” Calipari said. “It’s a heck of a league. I think we’re probably – our strength of schedule’s probably five or six in the country and I imagine even after this game our RPI is probably 14, 15, 16. And we’re-‘Kentucky! Cal’s gonna go-‘ No, no. We just gotta get a game where we put two halves together and let the winning take care of itself and we’ll go from there.”
Calipari hopes his team can get things right within the next three weeks and the veteran coach is optimistic he can find a team leader down the stretch.
“We’re working through all this,” he said. “We play for March. That’s what we’re playing for. We gotta get this thing right. We still got time. I’ve been in this situation a couple different times at Kentucky and you know every team we play is giving us their best shot. So when we get this, we’ll bust through, but it’s getting old right now.
“Each week that goes by, it gets harder and harder to get this thing to where you want it to go. And so at some point, you’re right, somebody’s gotta lead and step up and say, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ Right now, I’m not sure we have that guy. The reason is it’s hard to talk when you’re not playing well. It’s hard to talk when you’re saying the guy won’t fight until the game’s down 14. Then it’s hard to be that guy to say anything in those meetings.”
Kentucky rallied to beat West Virginia and Vanderbilt to close out January, but haven’t had any success posting comeback victories in the past three games.
“We can’t have those times where we have to fight back,” Knox said. “We have to play a whole 40 minutes, a complete 40 minutes to be able to win games. This is another learning experience for us and we’ll get ready for March and we just gotta keep playing hard each game and just keep getting better.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Auburn, 9 p.m., Wednesday. TV: ESPN2
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.