UK Men's Basketball

Calipari noncommittal on SEC race

Brandon Knight was congratulated by teammates after a home win earlier this season. After tough road losses, the Cats have a stretch of games in Rupp Arena to try to get back in the SEC East race.
Brandon Knight was congratulated by teammates after a home win earlier this season. After tough road losses, the Cats have a stretch of games in Rupp Arena to try to get back in the SEC East race.

A loss at Florida Saturday dropped Kentucky's record in the Southeastern Conference to 4-4. The first-place Gators improved to 7-2, which raised a question: Is the SEC race over for UK at the halfway mark?

"Lot of games left," UK Coach John Calipari said after Florida's 70-68 victory.

As Calipari looked ahead, it became clear he was not necessarily declaring the Cats still in the thick of the race, either.

"Finally, we get some home games," he said before adding, "and they're tough. Every game is going to be hard for us."

The loss at Florida ended a stretch of four away games in a five-game stretch. The Cats play Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Tuesday, but the relief brought by a home game will be brief. UK plays on Saturday at Vanderbilt, which beat South Carolina last weekend to improve its home record to 12-1.

Freshman point guard Brandon Knight, whose 24 points led a determined rally that came oh-so-close to beating Florida, downplayed the importance of the SEC race.

When asked about Kentucky's viability as a contender, he said, "I'm not really sure. This is my first time in it.

"I just know we've got to get better. That's our main goal."

Calipari and his players noted execution in the final minutes as job one of the fix-up. The Florida game marked UK's third two-point loss in conference play. The Cats' four losses have come by a combined 13 points.

And Calipari saw no reason to expect anything but more possession-by-possession tests of nerve and composure going forward.

"I told you guys, every game we play will be a four-point game," the UK coach told reporters. "... We've got to get where we're finishing off some games."

Down the stretch at Florida, Terrence Jones missed a contested jumper in the lane. Darius Miller twice failed to block out Chandler Parsons, who converted put-backs.

Given UK's unusually small margin for error, little miscues mean a lot. The vexation of a third two-point loss in 19 days (and second of the week) showed.

"It's real frustrating," Jones said. "Just fighting so hard to come back to where it just trickles off in almost every away game."

Knight said he led the charge from a 13-point deficit, in part, to embolden his teammates.

"Just going with whatever it takes to pump our guys up," he said. "To get us to fight back."

But, again, it was not quite enough to win.

"Oh, it's frustrating," Knight said. "We've got to figure out what exactly it is we have to fix.

"It's a learning experience. ... We want to win. (But) our main thing is, we want to get better so we can prepare for a long run (in the post-season)."

For a change, and because of foul trouble, Kentucky got contributions from players outside the regular six-man rotation. Eloy Vargas scored two points and grabbed four rebounds in 14 minutes (which tied his high for an SEC game this season). Jon Hood swished a jumper at the first-half buzzer. Jarrod Polson showed again he'll have his head in the game while he waits for an opportunity.

Still, the exertion needed to play so many close games raised fatigue as a possible issue. Are the Cats getting worn down, leading to the lapses that make all the difference?

"I don't think so," said Calipari, who noted that it took a 26-footer by Chris Warren to beat UK at Mississippi earlier last week.

And Kentucky did seem the stronger, fresher team in the second half at Alabama, Ole Miss and Florida.

"Maybe we might get a little bit tired," Knight said. "But in a game like that, adrenalin is pumping. You're not really thinking, 'Oh, I'm tired.' You're thinking of trying to get a win. That's what's really on my mind."