In the long and storied history of Kentucky basketball, there have been losing streaks of five or more games only five times. It’s happened only twice since 1925.
After losing 76-66 at Auburn Wednesday night, Kentucky must beat Alabama at home Saturday to avoid making the wrong and rare kind of history.
When told he seemed composed during the current losing streak, UK Coach John Calipari said, “I’m old. I’ve been through just about everything. I just say, I’m not fazed by it. I’m not cracking. . . . This isn’t about me. OK? This season’s not going to change anything about me.
“But my concern is I’ve got a bunch of young kids.”
Auburn Coach Bruce Pearl said that Kentucky was not in an irreversible downward spiral.
“They shouldn’t panic,” he said. “Because they’ve got great kids and a great coaching staff. Like us, just take them one at a time. Who’s on the schedule next?”
When told UK plays Alabama, Pearl smiled and said, “I might actually root for Kentucky against Alabama.
“But,” he added, “they do not need to panic.”
For the record, Rick Pitino’s first UK team (1989-90) lost five straight: to Louisiana-Lafayette, North Carolina, Louisville, at Georgia and at Vanderbilt.
Eddie Sutton’s ill-fated last UK team of 1988-89 lost five straight: at Georgia, at Vanderbilt, Florida, at LSU, Alabama and at Auburn.
The longest losing streak in UK basketball history is nine straight in 1923: Alabama, Centre, Georgia, at Cincinnati, Centenary, Tennessee, at Centre, Clemson and Georgetown.
UK also lost six straight in 1910 (DePauw, at Central, at Georgetown, at Cincinnati, at DePauw and at Rose Poly Technic) and five straight in 1924-25 (Indiana, Michigan, at Cincinnati, at Illinois and at Wabash).
“The good news is I’ve done this for 30 years,” Calipari said of dealing with the current four-game losing streak. “I haven’t had one of these for awhile. It’s probably good for the soul. I wish it was good for somebody else’s soul. And not mine.”
When Quade Green stepped to the foul line with 35.7 seconds left and Kentucky trailing 74-64, the Auburn students standing near the court began chanting “N-I-T, N-I-T.”
Might Kentucky be in danger of not receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament, and thus being exiled to the NIT?
“I have one thing: just try to win the next game,” Calipari said. “Win a game. I really believe if we win a game, we’ll get going.”
Calipari’s UK teams in 2011 and 2014 struggled through regular seasons, each losing six Southeastern Conference games, then got hot and advanced to the Final Four. Did Calipari believe this kind of good history could repeat itself?
“Yeah, I do, I do,” Calipari said. “You saw that team out there. If (Auburn) is a No. 1 seed, and we’re on their court, a four- or six-point lead with a chance, (then UK can make a NCAA run).
“But everybody’s got to play for us,” Calipari said. “Again, the other thing is you’ve got to make some shots.”
Pearl vouched for Kentucky being worthy of a NCAA Tournament bid.
“They’re a dangerous team,” he said. “(Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) is as good in ball screens as there is. . . .
“Their biggest weakness is they don’t shoot the three-ball as well (as they’d like). And they’re limited in playmakers, and the number of players who can make plays for others. But they are a NCAA team. And they definitely are a team that can advance.”
With UK leading 57-53 inside the final eight minutes, Hamidou Diallo took a three-point shot from the left corner. It bounced and rolled around the rim and out. The miss made Calipari feel sympathy for a player who is trying to adapt his game and live up to expectations in the unforgiving glare of Kentucky basketball.
“Poor Hami,” the UK coach said. “He’s making strides and getting better. He needed that three to drop. And that thing went da-da-da-da-da-da. And we’d be up seven (if the ball fell through the hoop).
“I told him, just keep working, man. But he looked rattled out there. And I said, we’ve got to win the game. You’ve got to worry about egos later.”
Diallo made one of five shots and scored three points.
The loss at Auburn dropped Kentucky into a tie for seventh place in the SEC. The Cats are even with Mississippi State at 6-7.
On the plus side, the league will make UK battle-tested going into the post-season.
“This league is something else,” Pearl said. “You’ve got to bring it every night, every single night. . . . Bottom to top, this is the best league in the country.”
Guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper led Auburn with 18 points.
Brown, the team’s leading scorer, did not play at Georgia last weekend because of an injured shoulder. During the morning shoot-around Wednesday, he told Pearl that he could not play against UK.
The shoulder loosened up during the day, he said.
Harper had seven assists and two turnovers. That made his assist-to-turnover ratio 22-to-5 in the last three games, 36-to-8 in the last four and 43-to-nine in the last five.