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Gary B. Graves | The Associated Press | December 16, 2017

Wildcats maturing, but more challenges lie ahead for freshmen

  No. 8 Kentucky has struggled to put away opponents such as Utah Valley, Vermont, Troy and Harvard.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari hasn't hidden his frustration about the learning curve of his latest group of talented freshmen.

And while the No. 8 Wildcats are starting play better, they're bracing for more challenges ahead.

Kentucky has struggled to put away opponents such as Utah Valley, Vermont, Troy and Harvard, efforts that players and Calipari acknowledge have contributed to a perceived lack of national respect. On the other hand, their lone loss — a 65-61 setback to Kansas — showed their ability to compete with college basketball's heavyweights.

"It was one of the big games they got to see," sophomore forward Wenyen Gabriel said. "The feeling and high intensity of the game, people watching, the fight in a big game like that, it really started to hit. Some players really started to get rolling off of that.

"We're starting to get better as a team, individuals are getting better and we're trending upward and trying to stay on that path."

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Kentucky (8-1) has begun running away from opponents, a promising trend it hopes to continue against upcoming Power Five conference foes.

Saturday's home game against Virginia Tech (9-1) opens a daunting year-ending stretch for the Wildcats that includes next weekend's matchup against UCLA in New Orleans; their annual in-state rivalry showdown against Louisville on Dec. 29; and their Southeastern Conference opener against Georgia on New Year's Eve.

Though Calipari still hopes February will reveal Kentucky's true strengths, he's eager to see how the Wildcats stack up against the Atlantic Coast Conference Hokies, who lead the nation in scoring at 96.2 points per game and rank second in 3-point shooting at 47 percent.

"They have three or four guys that can absolutely make 3s," Calipari said Friday while listing other Tech strengths. "They're looking for layups and kicking it out for 3s and they're getting to the line because of it.

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"They're not afraid. They go on the road in big games. Their home games are craziness. This is plugged into our schedule at a time where we need to learn about us, and we will."

After a busy November without much practice time, Kentucky has welcomed a lighter December schedule that has allowed the Wildcats more time for workouts and to build chemistry.

The Wildcats have a long way to go, but games such as last week's 93-76 win over Monmouth are encouraging for Kentucky fans.

Besides continuing their solid shooting — the Wildcats rank 22nd at nearly 51 percent — redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo (23 points) and forward PJ Washington (20) posted career scoring highs against Monmouth. Kentucky also succeeded with a smaller lineup and has been effective playing a zone defense, which Calipari disdains but has used because of his team's length.

"They're as long as anybody in the country," Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams said of Kentucky. "We'll have to work really hard to get the same shots we've been getting."

Kentucky remains short-handed with freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt (foot) and guard Jemarl Baker (knee) sidelined by injuries. But the Wildcats appear to be developing depth.

They faced Monmouth without sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones (sprained ankle) before starting guard Quade Green left in the second half after being poked in the eye. Both will be available against the Hokies and return knowing that the bench can fill the void after it combined for a season-high 27 points.

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Granted, Monmouth is not a barometer for success against the likes of Tech, UCLA or Louisville. But considering Kentucky's early struggles, any growth is welcome.

"We think highly of ourselves as a team," Gabriel added. "I think we deserve more credit than we're getting, so we're going to go out there and try to earn it."

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