By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
Kentucky may not the best team in the country right now, but could be one of the hottest squads in the nation after notching three victories over ranked teams in a seven-day span.
It all started with a thrilling 82-80 win over Auburn on Jan. 19, followed by a blowout over Mississippi State last Tuesday. The Wildcats parlayed that success into a 71-63 triumph over Kansas Saturday in front of the largest crowd to witness a game in Lexington this season.
Rupp Arena was loud and the fans were proud. By now, Big Blue Nation has forgotten about a 118-84 blowout loss to Duke in the Champions Classic in the season opener. Since that stunning setback – the worst in John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky — the Wildcats have beaten five ranked foes, including three in consecutive fashion.
That loss is still a vivid part of Calipari’s memory bank even though his team appears to have recovered from the embarrassing loss.
“I’d rather learn from a close win than an absolute shellacking that we took,” he said. “But if it does help us, that’s great, but I don’t … there’s no solace in what happened up there. We got absolutely clubbed by a very good team.”
In order to keep his team focused, Calipari has kept his squad grounded with his Cal-isms. He is more concerned with his team’s improvement than getting caught up in close wins and narrow defeats.
“When we lost to Seton Hall, I said, ‘I want you to look at that as though you won. That should be your mentality because we are getting better,’” he said. “Then the Auburn game ended and I said the next day, ‘I want you to look at that game as though we lost.’ The kid made the bounce. Does it change? We are getting better. We can’t live with results. Why? If you’re getting better, live with them.”
The Wildcats opened the Southeastern Conference schedule with a 77-75 loss at Alabama, the team’s second loss by less than two points. Although not a thing of beauty nor without a struggle, Kentucky has reeled off six straight victories and is poised to make a climb in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Wildcats currently are ranked No. 8, while league rival Tennessee is the top-ranked team in the nation.
“We are making — we are taking that gradual climb, and I know — I don’t know if it’s a people’s opinion of what we were or their hope of what we were,” Calipari said. “Like some people have a hope and it’s not an opinion, it’s their hope we stink, and that I think played into it early.”
Kentucky’s players also changed their mental focus following the loss to the Blue Devils and began to embrace Calipari’s defensive approach. The Kentucky coach has never worried about the team’s offense but a renewed emphasis on the other end of the court has helped the Wildcats flip the proverbial switch.
“I feel like we are coming together as a team,” Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson said. “Just having each other’s back and working hard every day is really paying off. A lot of it is defense because if you don’t get back on defense, it’s easy buckets after easy buckets. So I think that we have each other’s backs and you can really see it out there because of all the defensive stops we get.”
Calipari and the players just hope the trend continues when Kentucky steps back into SEC play at Vanderbilt Tuesday.
“We’re on a roll, and we’re just trying to keep it going and just win all of our next games,” he said. “We’re just going to come out and not underestimate anybody and focus on our game plan and try to play our game.”
Sometimes that’s all it takes to win.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.