By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today
LEXINGTON — Kentucky has regrouped by winning four straight since a humbling 67-74 loss to Evansville nearly a month ago.
The setback proved to be a learning experience for the Wildcats who dropped eight spots to No. 9 in the Associated Press Top-25. Kentucky (6-1) remained ninth until earlier this week when the Wildcats moved up one spot to No. 8 following Duke’s stunning loss to Stephen F. Austin.
“(The loss to Evansville) helped me get my mind right and where we need to go,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Thursday. “Sometimes we all — and I’ve done it — we all carried away where you play in your mind what your team is and sometimes, you put your hand in the sand and you don’t want to deal with it because we’re winning (at the time) and No. 1 in the country. That one (Evansville) woke me up. We have a long way to go — like a long way to go and individual players have a long way to go.”
Like his coach, Kentucky guard Immanuel Quickley said the loss served as a wake-up call, especially for the younger players.
“Coming from high school, every game is not really that serious,” Quickley said. “I think you can take that up to the next level in college. Being in college, anybody can beat you and we have seen that with a good team in Evansville.”
Kentucky returns from an eight-day break with a contest against Fairleigh Dickinson Saturday, followed by Georgia Tech on Dec. 14. The Wildcats then take on Utah at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, before taking on No. 6 Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic on Dec. 21. Kentucky then closes out the calendar year against top-ranked Louisville on Dec. 28 at Rupp Arena.
“At the end of the day, we may have the No. 1 schedule in the country,” he said.
Although the big-name teams await the Wildcats in the next three weeks, Calipari is focused on the present instead of the future.
“I’m worried about today’s practice,” Calipari said. “.. how good can we get? I f we don’t become an unbelievable defensive team, we will not be playing late in March. If we are that and are rebounding and have some toughness about us, fight — then we will have our chances to advance and do what we want do to.”
The Kentucky coach said teams such as Louisville are being successful because of team defense and have a roster of players with experience.
“The teams that are winning right now, they’re playing great defense and they have veterans,” he said. “That’s what it is. You’ve got to guard and you’ve got to have some veteran leadership. All I’m focused on these next two weeks is fight and fight for rebounds.”
Calipari also wants his team to finish, especially when it comes to closing out games.
“The last four minutes of games we have been atrocious,” Calipari said. “We were last year, too. Now, what I’m working on is how we finish the last four minutes of games. What we’re going to do and what is your mentality?”
Calipari is still without senior Nate Sestina, who is using a fractured non-shooting hand. Freshman Dontaie Allen is yet to make a full return to the court, leaving the Wildcats with less than eight scholarship players available on the roster.
“We’re still short-handed, but I’m like, forget it, let’s go,” he said. “I’ve done this before with six and seven guys. Let’s go — I’m not panicked, I feel good about my team, but we are nowhere near some of these other teams.”
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Gametracker: Fairleigh Dickinson at Kentucky, 4 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.