A tougher upcoming schedule, beginning with Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech, can bring the greater amount of respect that this season’s Kentucky team desires.
That was a theme voiced by UK Coach John Calipari, sophomore Wenyen Gabriel and freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in sessions with the media Friday.
“Because of the teams we’ve played so far, they’re not giving us enough credit …,” Gabriel said. “But the stretch is starting to get more difficult, and we’re about to play even better competition, and we’ll have more chances to prove ourselves.”
Virginia Tech (9-1) leads the nation in scoring (96.2 ppg) and shooting accuracy (55.3 percent). The Hokies rank No. 2 in three-point accuracy (46.8 percent). Their average of 10.3 three-pointers per game ranks No. 27.
Gilgeous-Alexander did not flinch.
“All of us know they have a lot of guys who can shoot it and put the ball in the hole,” he said. “But I think we also think we have the best defensive team in the country. And we’re ready to accept the challenge and stop them from what they usually do.”
Beginning with Virginia Tech, Kentucky appears to face more formidable challenges going forward than in previous games. Every opponent the rest of the regular season is from a so-called Power Five conference.
“This will be a hard game,’ Calipari said. “Look, we’re at that stage with this team: We win or we learn. That’s where we are. I’m not taking it any other way. . . .
“And we’re going to learn as individual players where guys are, and as a team where we are.”
Not for the first time, Calipari said the UK players and team had not been shown the proper respect.
“Kids on this team are not getting the kind of respect nationally they deserve,” he said. “And that’s OK.”
With almost three months remaining in the season, there’s plenty of time for Kentucky to win respect.
Gilgeous-Alexander linked the lack of respect to UK’s abundance of good players. Any individual player’s skills can get lost.
When asked if the lack of marquee opponents, except for Kansas, on Kentucky’s schedule played a part in the lack of respect, Gilgeous-Alexander agreed.
“Yeah, that probably does have something to do with it,” he said. “But, once again, we’re just ready to play and ready to show the world what we can do.”
But respect can be gained, he added. “If we just stick to the process, respect will come.”
Gabriel welcomed the better competition, beginning with Virginia Tech.
“I think we deserve more credit than we’re getting,” he said. “So we’re going to go out there and try to earn it.”
Morehead State lost 96-63 at Virginia Tech on Nov. 25. Eagles Coach Preston Spradlin recalled Tech’s shooting.
“They have only one true big man,” he said of Kerry Blackshear Jr., who is 6-foot-10. “Everybody on their team really shoots it. …They can score the ball, now. They sure can.”
Virginia Tech, which has seven players who’ve shot with 46 percent or better accuracy from three-point range, made 10 of 23 shots from beyond the arc against Morehead State.
As Kentucky expects a challenge, so does Virginia Tech Coach Buzz Williams.
“We’ll have to work really hard to get the same shots we’ve been getting because of their length and their speed and their athleticism,” Williams said of UK. “They’re so, so, so, so long. And I think that length, in addition to their athleticism, will be a distinct change from what we’ve played against through 10 games.”
Of course, the season does not end Saturday. For Kentucky, Virginia Tech merely begins a challenging next three-plus weeks that includes games against UCLA, Louisville, at Tennessee and home to Texas A&M.
“This is plugged into our schedule at a time where we need to learn …,” Calipari said.
Virginia Tech at No. 8 Kentucky
When: 2 p.m.
Records: Virginia Tech 9-1, Kentucky 8-1
Series: Kentucky leads 3-1
Last meeting: Kentucky won 84-60 on March 16, 1996, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Dallas.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1