Wildcats see an opportunity against Auburn

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) – Kentucky doesn’t see Auburn as an obstacle, but rather as an opportunity to get back on track.

The Wildcats (17-8, 6-6 Southeastern Conference) take on the Tigers (22-3, 10-2) Wednesday, the team’s third road game in the past four games. Kentucky is coming off an 85-74 loss at No. 21 Texas A&M and have lost three straight games for the first time in the John Calipari era.

Calipari said earlier this week he doesn’t mind playing in a hostile environment and thinks it will give his struggling team more motivation with their backs to the wall. Associate coach Kenny Payne agreed.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to go into a hostile environment with a bunch of young players and steal one,” Payne said Tuesday. “That’s the game plan, take one from them. They’re not going to give it to us. Without a doubt, they’re one of the best teams in this conference. Everything will say we have our hands full, but we just (need to go) prove people wrong.”

In order to do so, Kentucky freshman Hamidou Diallo said the Wildcats can’t afford to keep reverting to bad habits, both offensively and defensively.

“We’ve just got to come out and play the kind of basketball that we know we can play, and play together,” Diallo said. “That’s the most (important) thing that we’ve got to do is play together. We have to identify (ourselves) as the aggressor first.”

In their last outing, the Wildcats fell behind by as many as 17 points against the Aggies last weekend before rallying down the stretch. Texas A&M opened the second half with a 22-4 run and sustained the lead down the stretch.

“We just started off too slow,” Diallo said. “We can’t be doing that against any team that’s capable of beating us in the conference. We got down by a large margin and there wasn’t enough time for us to come back.”

Diallo said the team’s issues were magnified after watching the film and revealed the team’s current flaws, especially on the defensive end of the court. Diallo said the team looked “terrible” on tape.

“When you watch the film, it’s the little things that add up,” Diallo said. “Things like guys not getting back every play and guys not playing well on defense – all of us. We weren’t playing with the level of energy that we’re supposed to be playing with. We’re trying to get to that level of play.”

Diallo said the key to avoiding slow starts in the second half is to play with more intensity, especially on the road.

“We weren’t playing with energy, including myself and we weren’t playing as a team and as one unit. That’s something we’re going to have to get back to. We’re all going to have to identify ourselves and play with a different level of energy. Playing with energy and playing together.”

Payne said the biggest issued has been scoreless droughts at different times in the game, while opponents go in scoring binges, making it harder for the Wildcats to overcome.

“There are four-, five- and six-minute stretches in a game where we’re not producing,” Payne said. “We’ll go four minutes without a basket. (The opponents will) go five minutes and score seven out of eight possessions. We’re not good enough to make that up. We’re a good team, but when you give teams baskets, literally give teams baskets, it’s going to come down to a two-four-six-point game, you look back at the game and those spurts, that end up happening multiple times in a game, they end up killing us.”

Despite Kentucky’s recent struggles, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said: “Kentucky is still Kentucky.”

“I haven’t read all the particulars about them, other than them having six McDonald’s All-Americans, and they’ve got incredible things,” Pearl said. “A couple of things that are misunderstood about Kentucky is they’re a big target and they’re easy to criticize because they are the chosen, but they play hard. Kentucky kids play hard. When I say that, I mean they play harder than some of the other teams in our league. They are really long, and we’ve been bothered by teams like Texas A&M and Alabama who do a great job with using their length. We’ll have those kind of challenges.”

Kentucky will have its share of issues, too, but Diallo knows the Wildcats can’t take the Tigers — or any other team in the SEC — for granted.

“We’re not good enough for any team to come out and score a bunch of baskets against us and hit a much of shots and think we are going to be able to play our way back. We’re just not that good.”

— — —

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 on 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/Radio: ESPN2, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.