LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — John Calipari doesn’t want his team to get too overconfident going into his team’s home finale against Ole Miss Wednesday night.
“(Ole Miss) is good enough to beat us,” Calipari said. “They beat Missouri at Missouri. They had Tennessee – they lost by eight – and now they are coming here and a chance to play in Rupp. I know they are good enough to beat us. I’m worried about where are we. Have we learned or will we revert? Now, if you think there is no chance that we will not revert, you’re crazy. You’re crazy. There’s a chance that we could revert.
The Kentucky coach doesn’t want the Wildcats (20-9, 11-7 Southeastern Conference) to forget what transpired following wins over West Virginia and Vanderbilt last month when Kentucky dropped four straight to open February. During the past two weeks, however, the Wildcats have won three straight encounters and re-entered the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week at No. 23.
“Let’s hope these guys learned a lesson and they didn’t like how that felt and they are going to come out and play,” Calipari said. “I don’t even know if that is good enough to win, but you know what, I can deal with where we are as a team right now because we are getting better and they are about each other.”
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said the team’s attitude took a positive turn following wins over Alabama, Arkansas, and Missouri, all by double figures.
“It’s a huge change,” he said. “You go from being almost depressed and sad and disappointed in yourself to happy and ready for the next challenge. It’s been a big change.”
That change began with Gilgeous-Alexander, who started his own early-morning workouts in December.
“I just wanted to be the best that I could possibly be for this team,” he said. “To do that, I had to put in extra work. Those are the things I just do.”
More of his teammates, including Quade Green, joined Gilgeous-Alexander, while others did their workouts at night, depending on their class schedules. Gilgeous-Alexander said the workouts “could probably be a part of it” but credits team bonding for the team’s recent success.
“I think that it’s each and every one of us realizing how much we need each other to do what we want to do, which is going to be something special,” he said. “Just trusting each other and that’s what we weren’t doing a couple weeks ago and trying to do it ourselves and stuff like that.”
Calipari agreed and has never questioned his team’s commitment to winning. He added the Wildcats have developed a passion for defense.
“They want to win,” Calipari said. “The thing that they did not understand and hear is, if you don’t do this together you’re not going to have any fun. If you’re not going to do it together you cannot win against teams that are going to play like teams. Then when you’re losing it’s no fun. And then when you’re not enjoying playing with each other you’re really miserable. The biggest thing, too, on the flipside is this team now is beginning to enjoy defense. And if you enjoy defense and you’re playing together, you basically can’t wait for the next game to come up. I’m happy with their progress and what they’re doing.”
The Wildcats take on Ole Miss in their home finale Wednesday night. The Rebels (12-17, 5-11 Southeastern Conference) have struggled this season and have lost eight of their past nine games. Longtime coach Andy Kennedy resigned on Feb. 18 and acting coach Tony Madlock has compiled a 1-1 mark during the past two games. Despite a program in shambles, Calipari said overcoming the Rebels won’t be an easy task.
“This is hard,” Calipari said. “They had to get smacked around a little bit. They had to get knocked down, and now they’re dealing with it. Now we have a tough one.”
Gametracker: Ole Miss at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Wednesday. TV: ESPN2
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.firstname.lastname@example.org.