Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel spoke Friday about Kentucky experimenting with different lineups in practices this week. Small lineups. Big lineups. Coaches looking at players at new positions.
Not ideal, UK Coach John Calipari acknowledged.
“I hate to do that with six or seven games to go,” he said before adding, “it seems like every young team in the country is struggling. And it’s the veteran teams that are doing well. We’re all having problems trying to do the same thing: How are we going to cross the t’s and dot the i’s and connect everything.”
Kentucky faces such a veteran team Saturday night at Texas A&M. Ranked No. 5 at Christmas, the Aggies fell out of the top 25 because of injuries and suspensions.
Texas A&M has righted itself, having capped a three-game winning streak by beating No. 8 Auburn on Wednesday.
“Texas A&M is on an uptick right now,” ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said. “And that’s a tough game for Kentucky. They’re catching them at a time where they’re starting (to make a move) now. You know what? Their backs are against the wall for a tournament berth, and they’re really turning it up.
“It could be a hell of a week for Texas A&M.”
A&M players felt the upsurge of momentum in an 83-60 rout of South Carolina last weekend.
“It felt how it felt at the beginning of the year,” guard Admon Gilder said. “Everybody is going out there and playing hard.”
As for Kentucky, the latest talk of experimentation with lineups suggests that the search for consistency continues. Besides being largely a freshman team, UK had to incorporate Jarred Vanderbilt into the rotation in mid-January, plus deal with arguably its best shooter Quade Green missing three games because of a back injury.
“We haven’t had consistent play, really, out of any player,” Calipari said. “That’s why it becomes game to game. That’s an added issue we’re having right now.”
Calipari stressed shooting as a key component for Kentucky. In the losses at Missouri and against Tennessee in the last two games, UK made only five of 34 three-point shots.
“They’re open,” Calipari said of the shots. “And some of them are missed badly. And that worries me.”
Calipari rejected a reporter’s suggestion that confidence might be a problem. But the UK coach did cite poor preparation before the shot as an issue.
Calipari acknowledged the balancing act he faces. The players need to work to shoot better, but the coaches do not need to make too big of an issue of shooting.
“This should be a good shooting team,” he said. “But we’re so long and active, it doesn’t need to be a great shooting team.”
Kentucky is not a team dependent on making multiple three-point shots, he said.
As an aside, Calipari pointed out that by making more shots, UK can increase its assist total.
Another problem area is late-game execution, Calipari said.
“Some games we’ve been pretty good (at the end of games),” he said. “Other games we’ve been pretty bad. We’ve got to get more consistent late in games.”
Generally, Kentucky has improved, Calipari said.
“We’re getting better,” he said. “We’re defending better. We’ve got to make some shots at some point. I’ve got five guys that are capable shooters. More than capable shooters.”
Calipari acknowledged that four losses in the last seven games leaves Kentucky in need of some positive reinforcement. “We need to win some games,” he said.
But how Kentucky goes about winning and losing can make a difference.
“What if we really play well and something crazy happens and you get beat,” Calipari said. “Then you move on to the next game. But you know we’re getting closer. Just stay with it.”
Knox spoke of Kentucky taking solace in the struggles of other teams. It’s not just UK that’s losing games.
“That gives us hope,” he said. “Because we know we can fight. Every team is not going to win every game. Our time is coming.”
No. 24 Kentucky at Texas A&M
When: 8:15 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 17-7 (6-5 SEC), Texas A&M 16-8 (5-6 SEC)
Series: Kentucky leads 9-3
Last meeting: Kentucky won 74-73 on Jan. 9, 2018, in Lexington.