It sounds counter-intuitive, like turning in the direction of the skid. Could playing at No. 10 Auburn be just what a Kentucky team needs after losing three straight games?
As illogical as that might seem, UK Coach John Calipari has welcomed the timing of Wednesday night’s game at Auburn.
“It’s exactly what’s called for right now . . . ,” he said on his radio show Monday night. “This is the kind of game you want right now. How about you play someone who’s not good, and you’re still struggling? I’d rather go into this game. Let’s go. Let’s see if we can do something special.”
Associate coach Kenny Payne, who substituted for Calipari at Tuesday’s day-before-the-game news conference, echoed the sentiment. He summed up the attraction for a wobbling Kentucky team with one word.
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“Opportunity,” he said before adding, “This is a great opportunity for us to go into a hostile environment, a bunch of young players, freshmen and sophomores, and go steal one. That’s the game plan. . . .
“Everyone will say we’ve got our hands full. So go prove people wrong.”
Payne identified a reason for Kentucky’s three-game losing streak (longest for the program since 2008-09) and six losses in the last 11 games.
The challenge is four-, five-, six-minute stretches in games when the Cats do not play well, he said. One such stretch came in the first six-plus minutes of the second half at Texas A&M on Saturday. The Aggies outscored UK 23-4.
“We’re not good enough to make that up,” Payne said. “We’re just not.”
That sounded like a blow to the ego of any player, especially the high-profile, much-ballyhooed recruits that sign with Kentucky. Do players with one-and-done aspirations accept the notion that they’re not good enough to consistently win with anything less less than solid effort?
“I think they’re learning that,” Payne said with a chuckle. “But they’re young and they’re inexperienced in that. But they’re getting a lesson.”
Quade Green and Hamidou Diallo said the UK players had accepted the idea that they are not that good.
“That’s reality, really,” Green said.
When asked if he agreed that he and his Kentucky teammates were not good enough to consistently win with less than full effort, Diallo said, “One hundred percent.
“We’ve seen it multiple times. We’re not good enough to allow any team to just come out and score a bunch of baskets on us, hit a bunch of shots and think we’re going to be able to play our way back in every game. We’re just not that good.”
To watch Kentucky play with less than full attention and effort is not a pretty sight, Diallo said.
“It looks terrible on the film,” he said. “I mean, we all look terrible, including myself. And it’s just things we have to get better at. We see it on film, and now it’s all about correcting it.”
Payne echoed Calipari’s comments after the loss at Texas A&M about how the true value of coaching comes during times of adversity.
“Coaching doesn’t start when guys are playing well,” he said. “Anybody can coach when everything is going hunky-dory. (True coaching is) when things are bad. It’s when adversity hits. It’s when kids have self doubt.”
Payne suggested UK’s coaches must walk a tightrope in convincing the players they are not good enough to waltz to victory, yet are good enough to excel. This involves high-volume demands for the former, and reassuring tones for the latter.
“All have insecurity, all have self doubt,” Payne said of players. “Our jobs are to make sure they understand they’re good enough. Or we would have never recruited you.”
Earlier this season, Calipari described his younger-than-ever Kentucky team as “fragile.” To help bolster belief in a happy ending, the coaches have shown the players video of UK’s improbable Final Four runs in 2011 and 2014.
“This team is capable,” Payne said. “This team is more than capable even though they’re young. We just need them to fight to not give up four- or five-minute stretches of lackluster basketball. If you can do that, you give us a winning chance.”
Kentucky at No. 10 Auburn
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 17-8 (6-6 SEC), Auburn 22-3 (10-2)
Series: Kentucky leads 92-18
Last meeting: Kentucky won 92-72 on Jan. 14, 2017, in Lexington.