While the Southeastern Conference celebrated another football national championship, it might have failed to notice what is happening to another conference national champion.
The Kentucky Wildcats, the defending NCAA basketball champion, is struggling.
John Calipari’s team is another freshmen and sophomore-laden young edition — something Calipari is famous for. But while the team is loaded with talent, it is having trouble finding a consistency for which Kentucky basketball teams are known.
That latest blow to the Big Blue was particularly distressing because it came in the House the Rupp Built.
Texas A&M came into Lexington and handed Kentucky an 83-71 defeat at Rupp Arena, a place where Big Blue has been almost unbeatable over the years. The leading scorers for Kentucky were two freshmen, Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel. The rest of the starters were sophomores Ryan Harrow and Kyle Wiltjer and graduate student Julius Mays.
It was the first home loss under Calipari since he became the keeper of the Kentucky program.
Kentucky fell to 10-5 on the season and has now lost two of its past four games. Kentucky lost to Louisville 80-77 on December 29 and then took a 90-38 win over Eastern Michigan and a 60-58 win at Vanderbilt before dropping the Texas A&M game.
“I think it was 63-59 with about 4:00 something to go, and it was a situation that I talked to the team yesterday about, gut time, stop the runs, stop the bleeding,” said Calipari.
“And they were listening to what I was saying, but I don’t think they heard me, what you do defensively, what you do offensively, because we had Maryland do it to us; we had Duke do it to us; we had Vanderbilt the other night do it to us.
“We had other teams and this team went on a 16-1 run, and you’re not winning that way and it’s both on defense and offense.”
The Aggies were led by the hot shooting of 6-5 senior Elston Turner, who came to A&M after transferring from the Washington Huskies. Turner scored 40 points on 14 of 19 shooting from the floor. He was also 6 of 6 from the foul line and 6 of 10 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“I will tell you that that performance was — that’s as good as it gets, the way he shot the ball,” said the Kentucky coach.
But while Calipari had a lot of respect for Turner and the rest of the Aggies, he believes the loss was a reflection of the struggles of this Kentucky team.
“We did what we were supposed to to stay in the game with a kid going nuts on you, and then we cave in at the end,” he said. “Just stuff that we are trying to teach them: How you play, when a team — when they start to go on a run, it’s a 6-0 run and you call a time-out, you have got to stop the bleeding.
“One, you have to get fouled and two, you have to offensive rebound, man. Go after every ball because it stops the bleeding. And then three, you have to make easy plays and you’re not making hard plays; you’re not making the hardest shot. And we talked about it, and we didn’t. On defense, I just told you, you can’t let them rebound and you have to make them make hard plays, and you don’t foul. And at that point, you’ve got to become really a disciplined team, and that’s that will to win. The will to win is having discipline with three, four minutes to go.
“Right now, we don’t, have that discipline,” Calipari said.
The Kentucky coach is not one to write off a team at this point of a season. He knows that a young club has to go through the fires of competition on the road to find its identity.
“I like my team,” Calipari said. “I wish we could get Alex (Poythress) with more, you know, scream, yell: ‘Ahh, I want to win, stopping this guy.’ That’s what the guy was talking about. I’m looking at the dude and he’s got his head down. I mean, that’s — you know, we need him to play better. We need — you know, Archie (Goodwin), he’s got to play in better control.
“But these guys, they are all freshmen. We are expecting them to be finished products. It’s still early January. It’s going to be another month before this team comes together. I just hope we are winning enough games as we learn to do this. To win on the road against Vandy ends up being a big game now.
“Think about it: Any road win in this league is a good game,” he said.
Kentucky fans are used to winning and they expect that when March Madness rolls around, the young Wildcats will have grown into another NCAA Tournament team.
“I think we’ll be fine, but no, you’ve got to win games. For us going forward, each game we play, we just have to worry about being the best team in the gym,” he said. “We don’t need to worry about anybody else. Just be the best team in the gym and do what we are supposed to be doing.”
What Kentucky is supposed to be doing is defending its national championship. And there is still time for that.