Kentucky basketball: Wildcats unranked for first time since 2014, the last time this happened they made the Final Four
No Kentucky in the top-25 rankings? What’s the world coming to? What next, no Meryl Streep in the Oscar nominations?
Of course, we need only look back to the last time the Wildcats fell from the rankings. That was March of 2014, when they had 10 defeats. They were next seen playing in the national championship game. And Tuesday’s 78-65 victory over Mississippi State must have been of some comfort to Big Blue Nation. Finally, some space at the end after winning four of seven SEC games by 5, 3, 1 and 7 – and losing the other three.
Ah, but there’s still the youth. The top six scorers are all freshmen.
The mistakes. Their assist-turnover ratio is a dead even 282-282. In SEC games, it’s 89-96.
The shooting irregularities. The Wildcats are 276th in the nation in free throw percentage, tied for 341st in 3-pointers made. Kentucky’s streak of 1,033 consecutive games with at least one 3-pointer goes on, but there have been games when it took until the last 10 minutes.
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The still-under-construction defense, which has had Calipari playing far more zone than he ever has before.
The injuries to this year’s freshman wave. Quade Green has missed time at guard, which is one reason for the turnover woes. Jarred Vanderbilt has gotten back for only three games, and is averaging one rebound every two minutes.
So Kentucky is 15-5, and still very much a work in progress. Then again, any season with a 29-point win over Louisville has to feel promising in Lexington. To get a whiff of the winding road this journey has been, we need only follow the words of Calipari.
After the Wildcats rallied from 12 points down in the second half to beat Utah Valley in the opener...
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“I've never clapped or cheered as much in a game...more this game than all of last season. Whatever this team needs, I'm going to have to do. We're young, there's just so much we have to do and part of this early is going to be about survival.”
The four-point win over Vermont, when the issue was who would step up in a tight game...
“I was trying to figure out who we go to. And I don't know yet.”
The loss to UCLA that snapped a seven-game winning streak...
“I'm not looking forward to seeing them tomorrow...but they're probably not looking forward to seeing me either. This thing that we're doing, this is really hard with young kids and no real veteran leadership. You don't know what a 17 or 18 year old is thinking. I have no idea. Obviously, we need guys with more of a mentality of a will to win and blocking out everything else. Hopefully we bounce back from this. I told them the next four games we play, we can lose every one.”
The struggle to beat Georgia at home...
“No one's passing...So Tuesday (practice) we're going to do 10 passes. You must pass, you cannot dribble, you must get open and pass the ball. They're going to think it's boring. This is boring. But we have to pass to each other, we have to create shots for each other...You drive the ball there, for what reason? To run three people over and the officials and two cheerleaders?”
The three-point win at LSU...
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"I told them after, that's probably every game we play. My hope is we have a chance to win at the end. But there's not going to be blowouts in this league. I'm sorry, the league is too good."
The whipping at Tennessee, when Calipari tried to stop the onslaught with a zone...
“They out-toughed us. They just threw us around. It was embarrassing...If you got something else (on defense) I could have played, I would have played that, too.”
The one-point escape against Texas A&M...
“A tough player deals with what's there and responds to it. So I'm talking a lot about body language. Body language screams. It screams for everybody to see. In most cases it's an immaturity thing...I didn't think I had to teach them this, but I pulled out the toughness sheet and we read what toughness is. Are we that? No. Are we this? No. Are we this, this, this? No.”
The defeat at South Carolina...
“We're not there yet. I hate to say it, you gotta take some losses to get guys to start listening.”
The home loss to Florida that dropped Kentucky from the rankings...
“We're going to be fine now. What I saw today that, is one of the best offensive teams in the country. We held them to 33 percent and 20 percent from the three-point line. We didn't come up with some loose balls. We didn't understand the importance of it. We had some freshman mistakes, up three and throw the ball out-of-bounds; what in the world are you thinking? A blocked shot; a kid doesn't have a shot, he ball fakes and shoots in the air. I can cure those.
“I was worried after South Carolina. I'm not worried after this. They do this and they stay this course and this is who we are, we'll be fine.”
The day before the Mississippi State game...
“I'm not panicked. I mean, I coach at Kentucky. I always have young guys. I don't have them this young. They are really young. They are learning to trust each other. I've got to get them to trust each other on both sides of the ball, and it may take more time. There have been years it has taken us to the end of February, and guess what? I woke up every morning, got ready to go, did my thing, coached my team and eventually they got it. I fully expect that from this team, but there are growing pains. This may be the youngest team in the history of the NCAA trying to do something unique and special. There have been teams this young and they've been like, 3-25."
And finally, Wednesday night, when a 13-point win stopped any bleeding, even if there is still a need to get the Wildcats thinking team more, and individual scoring less...
“I'm trying again to make them willing passers. So let me tell you how you get an assist. You get a normal assist; you pass it to somebody and they score. You pass it to somebody and they miss the shot, still giving you an assist. You pass it to somebody and they get fouled, still giving you an assist. If you're a big man and you outlet the ball and that guy leads to a break, I'm giving you an assist. If you throw it ahead and someone else throws it to somebody else for an assist, I'm giving you an assist, too. There's a hundred ways now to get an assist. But to get an assist you must start by passing the ball.
“When guys are doing great passing, you're hugging them, you're telling them. And when a guy gets 22 (points), you don't even mention it.
“Right now, there's still not a lot of trust within and even trust in what we're trying to get them to do. Part of it is each guy trying to establish who they are as a player. When you've got everybody that's comfortable in their own skin, and who they are as a player, and what they are being asked to do, it starts rolling. We're just not there yet.”
John Calipari is starting to think about March and his unranked team is making its way, one sometimes-wobbly step at a time. Best guess: Kentucky won’t be unranked for long.