Kentucky’s first three-game losing streak in almost a decade did not rob Coach John Calipari of his sense of humor nor his faith that the Wildcats can make a big splash in the postseason.
After UK lost 85-74 at Texas A&M on Saturday, Calipari said he made a pointed, though lighthearted, proposal to the players.
“I told them, if I want this more than you want this, please tell me,” he said, “so I can take my wife to movies and dinners.”
Calipari made this seem like, at least partially, an attempt to lighten the mood because he added, “They want this. They want it for each other. It’s just a tough deal.”
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Arguably the youngest team in college basketball history lost a third straight game. That hadn’t happened since Billy Gillispie’s UK team of 2008-09 lost the final four regular-season games.
Kentucky’s 17-8 record prompted media questions about whether even a NCAA Tournament bid might be beyond reach.
Kevin Knox said he was not concerned about UK not getting a bid.
“No, not really,” he said. “Coach tells us after each loss, come out and play like you just won. That keeps us going. …
“We have a lot of guys who really want to make it. Who really want to get to March and play there. It’s a big experience for us.”
Calipari went down a familiar list of objectives in getting Kentucky there. For instance, he said UK needs to work to play a complete game. He also said players continue to let poor play affect their contribution to helping the team win.
“I can’t seem to get them over that hump,” Calipari said. “Play for us instead of yourself. There’s not enough trust there yet.”
Calipari spoke optimistically about Kentucky’s potential to do well in the NCAA Tournament.
“We play for March,” he said. “That’s what we’re playing for. We’ve got to get this thing right. We still have time.
“Every team is giving us their best shot. So when we get this, we’ll bust through. But it’s getting old right now.”
When asked what bolstered his faith that Kentucky will get it in time for the NCAA Tournament, Calipari said, “Because I’ve done this 30 years. … If I was a two-year coach, I’d probably be panicked right now. But I’ve done this long enough.
“A big part of it is they have to want this to happen. And I believe they do. And I believe they’re embarrassed by their play.”
Lacking a leader
When asked if Kentucky had a leader to help deal with adversity, Calipari said, “Not right now. And they need it from me. … You guys know how I am. They have to be an empowered team. …
“So someone has to lead and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ Right now, I’m not sure we have that guy. The reason is it’s hard to talk when you’re not playing well.”
Earlier this season, Calipari suggested PJ Washington could be Kentucky’s leader. He made one of six shots against A&M. That made him six of 26 in UK’s last five games.
Without naming names, Calipari said he opened the second half with the intention of establishing a certain player.
“I went to ‘Let’s go through this guy to start the half,’ and it was a mistake,” Calipari said. “I was thinking maybe I could get that guy going. But he didn’t.”
UK went to Washington on two of its first three possessions of the second half.
Texas A&M players suggested the 74-73 loss at Kentucky on Jan. 9 served as extra motivation.
“We had a chip on our shoulder for this game, especially,” DJ Hogg said.
UK fans might recall the game came down to a non-call on the final play. Later, Wenyen Gabriel acknowledged that he got away with a foul that prevented Tyler Davis from attempting a game-winning shot.
Teammate Robert Williams said the loss in Lexington motivated the A&M players in every game thereafter. That was truer than ever in the rematch.
“We definitely had this one on our calendars,” he said. “We felt we left something out there (in Rupp Arena).”
A&M Coach Billy Kennedy downplayed the notion of revenge. “Our team is so different,” he said.
In January, the Aggies were in the midst of opening SEC play with five straight losses. Now healthier and beyond player suspensions, the team matched its longest winning streak of the season (four games) by beating Kentucky.
Calipari saluted Kennedy’s ability to keep his players united and progressing despite the earlier losses. “That’s what coaching is,” Calipari said.
Watch the Aggies?
During an SEC game telecast earlier in the day, commentator Jimmy Dykes suggested the league might have a team do what South Carolina did last season: Go from unranked to the Final Four.
“Keep an eye on the Aggies,” Dykes said.
A&M Coach Billy Kennedy demurred. “Shoot, we’re just trying to win tomorrow,” he said.
Sacha Killeya-Jones did not make the trip to Texas. The sophomore forward attended the funeral of his grandfather.
The announced attendance of 13,263 was the eighth-largest crowd in the history of Reed Arena, which opened in 1998.
It was A&M’s first sellout since the Sweet 16 season of 2015-16.
“First time, a crowded gym for us,” Williams said.
Kennedy echoed the sentiment by calling the atmosphere “definitely different. Rocking.”